Friday, March 19, 2010

Nicky's Basketball Team Oozes Joy & Hits the National News

Wins and losses aren't part of the Balboa VIP, a basketball league for special-needs children.
Bill Plaschke
Basketball's championship week concluded Saturday with a result far more interesting than anything involving Kansas or Duke.

Would you believe a tie?

''Hmmm,'' said Coach Steve Siskin, glancing up at a scoreboard that blinked 36-36 on the side of Encino's Balboa Park gym

Basketball's championship week concluded Saturday with an award presentation far more exciting than anything at Madison Square Garden or Staples Center.

Would you believe the same trophies for everyone on both teams, every player sprinting across the court to grab identical statuettes as if they were personalized gold?

''Makes sense to me,'' Siskin said.

As he spoke, a player for the gold team was twirling around his trophy as if it were a tiny ballerina. A player for the purple team was using her trophy to corral everyone into a hug. A player wearing only a T-shirt had put down his trophy, picked up a piece of cake, and was skipping in place.

Talk about your big dance. You can have the Big East or the ACC. I'll take the Balboa VIP, a league for special-needs kids that held its second annual title game Saturday.

Talk about one shining moment. The Balboa VIP championship game gave you two red eyes full of them, a game featuring everything found in more traditional title games this weekend -- and blessedly less.

You want nicknames? There was the X-Box, Eagle Eyes, Big J, Big Z, kids made huge by Siskin's booming microphone work and a 13-week schedule that prepared them for this moment.

You want fastbreaks? The kids, ages 10 to 18, ran up and down the court for nearly an entire hour, seven on seven, taking the court in five-minute shifts, surrounded by coaches and helpers and two referees who just shrugged and smiled.

You want pressure? If a child pulled down a rebound in front of the basket, everyone surrounded them and chanted their name until they shot and scored. And they did score. Not only does everybody play, but everybody scores.

You want winning fans rushing the court? You should have seen the parents after the game ended, surrounding their kids like suburban parents everywhere, snapping photos, exchanging high fives, a wonderful moment of sweet routine.

You want meaningful postgame quotes? "I feel like I'm at home here,'' said Xavier ''X-Box'' Alfonso, 17. "This is one place I can be myself.''

You want a winner and a champion? Sorry. Not only is the scoreboard just for looks -- six points were added in the final second to make it a tie -- but so are the uniforms and teams.

Everyone here is on the same side, that of bringing a sense of acceptance and empowerment to challenge-filled lives. For an hour a week, this kids do exactly what thousands of other kids do on winter Saturday afternoons, in the same gym with the same uniforms, the only thing special being an insistence on passing the ball to anybody who hasn't scored, and uncanny ability to shoot the three.

"To see a kid hit a three and then hear the crowd roar, it raises the hair on the back of my neck,'' said Siskin, an Encino wealth manager with two able-bodied children who founded the league seven years ago. ''I would rather be here than at a Laker game.''

Siskin was coaching his son on a local youth team when the sister of one of his players kept showing up for the games. She was a child with Down syndrome, and after every game, she would ask him when it was her turn to play.

He couldn't find her an answer, so he created one himself, inviting her and her friends to scrimmage against his team. The word soon spread, and today there are 40 kids who practice once a week and play every Saturday, culminating in Saturday's second annual title game.

"Coach Steve is an absolutely amazing guy who is doing this for no other reason than the goodness of his heart,'' said Michael Gerety, whose daughter Katherine plays here. ''Not once does he treat them like they have special needs. He embraces them for who they are.''

There is Teddy Landes, 18, who, five years ago, was taught where to stand on the foul line while an opponent was shooting a free throw. Today, every time down the court, he runs to that same spot and smiles as if his team had just busted a bracket.

There is Alayna, who banked in a 15-footer and then proceeded to hug everyone around her while weeping tears of joy.

You didn't see any that anywhere else this weekend. This was the kind of scene that got the parents talking and eventually begging Siskin to keep the league running.

''Where else can they play?' said Siskin, who can be reached at ''What else can I do?''

So, yep, in three weeks, the Balboa VIP League will start again, more tie games, more trophies, more big dancing, the road to the Final Four paved over by a circle of life.

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