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The Reluctant Olympian

Basketball season at our house has nothing to do with Kobe Bryant or the NBA. What gets our blood pumping is Special Olympics basketball season, which is, of course, where the real court action is.

Ten years ago, I would have scoffed at the idea that we’d be this involved. I’ve never played an organized sport in my life, and the last time my husband Javier played basketball, he was a gawky seventh grader in Catholic school. None of that mattered. Today, Javier is the five-year veteran coach of the Henrico Hornets, and he paces the sidelines during games like Pat Riley. Our other two kids are peer coaches, playing alongside the team members to remind them of little things, like which way we’re running. Me? Thanks to my lack of sports know-how, I’m responsible for pizza parties at the end of each season. There are no small roles, I tell myself.   

Sometimes, when the sky is dark and we’re loading the trunk with a net full of balls and jerseys for another tournament, we wonder if this is going to be our last season. After all, it’s arguable whether Cristina gets a true workout. She hates to sweat and sometimes chooses to walk during games, just depending on her mood. Her most dependable skill is that she’s 5’9”.

Mostly, it’s the whistle that attracts her. Between practices, she wanders around the house with her dad’s whistle dangling around her neck. She has discovered its excellent properties as a way to alert me that the dinner timer has rung on the oven, that the dryer is done, that her brother and sister are fighting, yet again.  

She’s only one type of player, of course. We have a whole range on our team. We’ve got talented players that, if left unchecked, would try for three-point, Michael Jordan-style shots all game long. We also have kids who forget they’re in a game halfway through the third quarter.

“Bounce it over so your friend can get the pass,” Javier reminds them when one of our athletes takes a ball to the face. “Great defense,” he hollers later when four kids have their hands straight up like victims of a holdup, guarding their man … or, well, anyone who happens to be around. “Run!” he urges Cristina, maybe remembering the time when we weren’t so sure she’d ever walk.

Over the years, we’ve played teams of Lilliputian third graders, and we’ve played young men with full beards and chest hair. In the end, it’s all worked out. The one constant is that when someone scores a basket, the whole gym erupts in thunderous applause and every player will jump up and down in giddy celebration.

It would be nice to sleep in on cold winter Saturdays and not deal with volunteering, which, frankly, can get on your last nerve. Folks forget to reply to e-mail. Dates are changed and no one knows why. Athletes don’t show. But somehow, we forgive each other and each year the program grows in a way that I know would have made founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver proud. At the close of each season, the kids leave us in March with friends and with skills they bring back to their playgrounds and schoolyards. And just as important, we’ve taught the typical kids who serve as refs for tournaments what the game looks like when it truly is all about goodwill and fun.  

There was a time I hated going to the playground and watching Cristina get outrun, outplayed and outstripped by every classmate. Today, when she steps on the basketball court, I realize she’s part of a 40-year movement that serves three million athletes worldwide. That’s enough to make me haul balls and sit in a smelly gym for hours. Think about it: In Texas alone, for every athlete that participates, there are 16 people with intellectual disabilities who don’t get in on the fun.

How can anyone sleep in on that?