This past week, I had the pleasure of acting as a head coach for Special Olympics’ first annual summer basketball camp at WinStar Farm in Versailles, KY. I’ve been to several Special Olympic events in the past, and have a wide range of history with kids with disabilities, but this was without a doubt one of the most rewarding and heart warming experiences I’ve ever had.
The camp was founded by Elisabeth Jensen, a mother of a child with intellectual disabilities, after realizing the Lexington and surrounding areas didn’t have many opportunities for these kids to get out during the summer and develop necessary skills for their highly-competitive Special Olympics seasons coming up in the fall and spring. She got in contact with several other parents, Special Olympics, sponsors, etc., and put on an experience these athletes will remember for a lifetime.
Throughout the week, a typical day consisted of morning warmups from about 10-10:30, drills from 10:30-12, lunch from 12-1, an afternoon activity from 1-2, and a final scrimmage each day from 2-3. Drills were made up of shooting, dribbling, rebounding, passing, and defensive components to improve skills in all aspects of the game. The afternoon activities each day ranged from instruction of music with instruments, tie dying shirts, and a tour of WinStar farm to meet former Kentucky Derby-winning horses.
The athletes were divided into two teams for scrimmages and a big exhibition game held Friday afternoon. I coached one team throughout the week, while a few other coaches split up reps for the other squad. Even former Wildcat Ravi Moss got in on the action. (I had to hand Ravi his first loss as head coach in our head-to-head matchup.)
After we rounded the kids up from lunch on Thursday to take them back for their daily afternoon scrimmage, we were met by none other than UK great Jack “Goose” Givens back at the gym.
After a quick “hello,” he watched the kids participate in warmups and shootaround for roughly twenty minutes or so before gathering everyone up in the middle to give the athletes a quick pep talk and a few pointers on the game of basketball.
“Teamwork, sportsmanship, and having fun” were the three components he described as each athlete’s keys to success in their future basketball careers. Throughout both practices and games, Givens said he wanted to see the athletes pick up one another, no matter the circumstance.
“If someone makes an impressive shot, cheer them on even if they aren’t on your team. If someone trips and falls, offer your hand to pick them up. There’s no time for whining and complaining on the court, always have a positive attitude and try your best, giving 100% along the way.”
After his talk with campers, he stuck around to referee the scrimmage and give tips as the game progressed. After every made basket and high-effort play, “Goose” was the first person to run over and celebrate, giving high fives and encouragement to the kids. After a missed shot or turnover, he’d tell them “you’ll get it on the next one, no worries.”
After Thursday’s busy day came to a close, I got a chance to talk with him a little bit about his experience with the kids and his thoughts on the camp as a whole.
“I’ve worked with Special Olympics off and on in the past, so when they asked me to stop by, I didn’t hesitate. When I got here, the first thing I noticed was the smile on these kid’s faces. Seeing all of these amazing volunteers and adults pouring attention in them, and each camper visibly proud of the progress they’ve made this week was really special to witness first hand.”
When I asked about what he hopes the athletes remember most about camp and his experience with the kids, he went back to the basics.
“I just want them to know basketball is all about having fun. If you’re going to be out on the court working hard, it’s your job to have fun along the way. By being out here and watching them throughout warm ups, shootaround, and scrimmages, I know every one of them did. Each and every one of these kids smiled, helped out teammates, and did what they were supposed to do. It was a pleasure to hang out with these unbelievable individuals today.”
“Goose” always seemed to be a great guy, but I developed a newfound level of respect for him after spending a good bit of time with him. On top of Givens’ time with the kids, the camp was a flawless production to give some incredible athletes a chance to show off and develop their skills. Incredible location, beautiful facility, and the best kids in the world. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Thank you to Mrs. Jensen and Special Olympics for allowing me to participate and creating such an unbelievable opportunity for these individuals. Needless to say, I’ll be back again next year.