People aged 8-21 gathered in Nicoson Hall and the Ruth Lilly Fitness Center to compete in the only youth basketball tournament for children and young adults with special needs in the entire world on March 23. Twenty basketball teams travelled from around the state to the University of Indianapolis to compete in the tournament.

Photo by Marissa Burton
Players from several University of Indianapolis athletic teams cheer for one of the Special Olympics teams after a player made a shot. Several student-athletes from many of UIndy’s teams were involved with the 2019 Special Olympics Youth Basketball Tournament.

The tournament is planned and operated by students enrolled in Kinesiology 481, along with the help of Kinesiology Professor Jennifer Vansickle, and in conjunction with Special Olympics Indiana. Students in the class do everything from signing up and recruiting volunteers for the event to planning out the day. Manager of Sports Programs for Special Olympics Indiana Patrick Kozlowski said because of this, the event may look and run differently every year.

“They [students] really do all of the planning and all the logistical coordination for the tournament,” Kozlowski said. “Dr. VanSickle and I are kind of able to step back and the students make everything go in terms of training the volunteers, [to] making sure everything’s running smoothly on the courts, [to] putting out any fires that might happen throughout the day. That’s all done by the students as much as they’re comfortable with.”

According to Kozlowski, not everyone who signs up for the class is able to participate in the planning of it. Students who sign up must go through an interview process and be selected for the class.

“They’re [the athletes] all jumping up and down. They get so excited.”

The basketball teams begin practicing in December and begin playing their so-called regular season games from January to March. Then, Special Olympics Indiana, along with the help of the students in the class, place each team into a division based on age and ability level. What is different about this youth tournament, Kozlowski said, is unlike the Indiana High School Athletic Association, there are five or six state champions, rather than just one.

“So rather than grouping all 20 of those teams into one bracket, we try and determine, okay, these three or four teams seem to match up. So that’ll be one division or one bracket,” Kozlowski said. “And so there’ll be a state champion in that division. Then, we’ll keep doing that and we try and pair them up in groups of four just because that makes it easy from a bracket standpoint.”

The teams may also win silver and bronze medals if they do not win the state championship gold medals. In between games, volunteers take teams to classrooms in Ruth Lilly to participate in activities to pass the time.  According to junior sports management major Alex Algee, UIndy’s football, basketball and cheerleading teams attended the event to cheer on the athletes and participate in the extra activities. Athletes played games such as cornhole and ladderball. Algee said the event turned out very successful and his favorite part was watching the athletes’ faces light up as they were about to run out of the tunnel.

“I was literally standing in the tunnel where they get to run out….They’re all jumping up and down. They get so excited,” Algee said. “To see that, and that energy they have and to give them that experience and to know, ‘Hey I was apart of that and I did this for them,’ that was really cool for me.”

Photo by Marissa Burton
Athletes traveled from across the state to compete in the world’s only Youth Special Olympics Basketball Tournament. UIndy’s athletic teams attended to cheer them on.

Along with the team tournament, there is also an individual skills competition for athletes who may not have the physical stamina, or cognition to understand the common rules of team basketball.  Those athletes compete in three different skills competitions: shooting, passing and dribbling, according to Kozlowski. Just like the team tournament, those athletes are scored based upon how well they performed and receive both medals and ribbons for their performance.   

Kozlowski said the tournament provides athletes with the opportunity to not only develop their skills in basketball, but to also learn adversity and develop social skills along the way.

“In sports you have to deal with not only winning, but also losing. So, I think to some degree it [the tournament]  teaches our athletes important life skills in terms of dealing with adversity and things that happen in life that maybe were unexpected or that we’re not necessarily happy about. It teaches them all of those things that come with being on a team, learning how to take direction from someone, things that a lot of our athletes need a little bit more work in developing those life skills. And so things that, neurotypical people maybe take for granted.”