Winning season: Players learn life lessons

This story could be about how the Sacred Heart Flames 7/8 basketball team went from a 0-20 record last year to a 12-7 record this season, but it is not. I would like to say that through hard work and perseverance they won the Bishop’s Tournament, but they did not. As a matter of fact, what these young men did will never show up in a trophy case or on a banner hanging in the gym. What they did went unnoticed by hundreds of people every week over a period of three months.
What these young men did was let the Sacred Heart of Jesus shine through them to transform an unexperienced, somewhat awkward boy with Autism into a driven young man who go to become part of a team. The young man is question is my son, Matthew, and his story goes something like this.
While we were at Sacred Heart School registering Matthew’s brother, Kieran, for soccer Matthew saw a sign about basketball and said he wanted to play. I spoke with Coach Jones who said when the time comes he knew just the team for Matthew. Since Matthew is home schooled I thought he would forget about basketball but he did not, neither did Coach Jones.
When the day for his first practice came we had to go buy new shoes and shorts, Nike of course, and rush to practice. On the way I explained to Matthew that the boys on this team will not be like what he is used to. These boys do not have Autism, Downs Syndrome or use a wheelchair like the other kids he is used to playing with at Field of Dreams. These boys are what we call “typicals” and do not have any disabilities.
I asked Matthew if he wanted to tell the other boys about his Autism or did he want me too. “I will let you know,” he said. To my surprise that conversation never took place and the boys on the team soon became more than just “typicals” or strangers, they became his mentors, his teammates and his friends.
Coach Micah said he had rather coach an entire team of Matthews – who had desire to learn – than a team of experienced kids, not much teaching required there.
Each night after practice we would stop by a local fast food restaurant for a vanilla shake (no whip cream or cherry) and a sweet tea. It became a ritual. We would talk about practice, his new friend Coach Micah and the players who helped Matthew that night. He would end by saying “It was a good night.”
From the first practice Matthews’s enthusiasm and determination to learn was very apparent and infectious. Even though he could not run as fast, jump as high, dribble at all, or shoot very well he was quickly becoming an inspiration. I have never been more proud.
As the season went on the practices got harder. One night Matthew was slammed to the floor while getting a rebound. Then he ran into a stack of folding chairs while chasing down the ball. Finally, he was hit in the face by a stern and quick pass. I thought we were going to be leaving for sure but after some cold water on his face and a little pep talk from dad, Matthew was back on the court.
My son began to get more game time as our team scored more points. Matthew would get nervous and miss his shots but it was a team effort. Everyone wanted him to score. It was not until the last tournament that I realized how much the team meant to Matthew.
During a previous tournament the game was so close Matthew did not get to play. Coach Micah apologized to Matthew and me for not getting him in to the game. I understood the hard choice that was made but I was not sure if Matthew did, even though he said it was okay.
On the way to the Bishop’s Tournament I told Matthew that there may come a time that Coach Micah may need to keep the older more experienced boys in the game. I asked Matthew if he wanted to sit out or have me ask coach to put him in. Matthew began shaking his hands in frustration saying, “I hate these decisions.” There is no easy answer. After about 30 seconds Matthew turned and looked at me and said, “I want my team to win.”
I got a lump in my throat as I hugged Matthew and told him how proud I was. Matthew did get to play in the remaining games, even the last one where we lost. Just being on the court was a win in our book.
Under Coach Micah’s leadership the 7/8 grade boys not only had a great season but they became more attuned to the needs, desires and dreams of those who live in this world we call Autism.
Since the season’s completion Coach Jones and Coach Micah began coaching kids from Special Olympics on Monday night and Matthew is right there with them. This is Matthew’s first year to be involved with Special Olympics but he is no longer new to basketball.
I wanted to recognize the players and coaches that made such a big impact on my son Matthew and our entire family. Thank you Coach Jones for allowing Matthew to play in your program and for your dedication to all our children. Thank you Coach Micah, Matthew’s mentor and friend for all that you do to inspire and teach our children. To the young men on the team, thank you for being the hands, feet, voice and heart of Jesus Christ on and off the court. Remember, Go Flames – Go Matthew!
(Jeff Bell is a member of Olive Branch Queen of Peace Parish. He is the father to six children in a big, loving blended family. Two of his children attend Southaven Sacred Heart School.)