By Sean Connolly, editorial columnist
Cheers and claps followed almost every successful shot at Solomon Court on Friday afternoon. A particularly impressive feat of ball-handling or blocking earned a similar response, as did the halftime events where students and players danced and shot 3-pointers.
This was the scene at Northeastern University’s (NU) inaugural Special Spirit basketball game between Lynn Team Blackout and Whitney Academy, two Massachusetts Special Olympics basketball teams.
“These athletes practice for months on end just like college athletes do, but they don’t have a lot of fans at their game” said Melissa Jacques, a junior psychology major and one of the event organizers. “We wanted to give the athletes the chance to be treated like college basketball superstars.”
According to senior chemical engineering major and event organizer Andrew Horowitz, NU is the third school to host a Special Spirit basketball game. These games are meant to give Special Olympic players recognition by bringing their teams into high-energy college basketball environments. Horowitz said the hope is that Special Olympics teams, normally relegated to the background, will have a chance to stand in the spotlight. This both gives the players increased recognition and brings more attention to Special Olympics programs as a whole.
“They practice the same amount as any other team,” he said. “It’s about letting them be the stars.”
The event was founded by Todd Borchers, a longtime coach of Special Olympics athletes. Borchers said he has helped to organize these games at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the University of New Hampshire (UNH). This time, Borchers came out to emcee at the game, but it was NU students who took the initiative to create the event. At the end of the game, Borchers recognized Jacques and Horowitz.
“If it wasn’t for these two, Special Spirit Northeastern would not be happening tonight,” he said.
Horowitz saw the Special Spirit event last spring at UNH and decided it could work well at NU.
“It was such a good cause and it seemed like everyone was really enjoying themselves,” Horowitz said. “It just kind of struck a chord with me.”
He reached out to Jacques, who is a member of NU’s chapter of Best Buddies International, an organization which helps form personal connections between volunteers and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. NU’s Best Buddies program ended up playing a major role in organizing the event.
“We presented the idea to Best Buddies last fall and ended up forming our committee as a part of their organization on campus rather than going through the process of forming a new club,” he said.
Horowitz cited several other Northeastern organizations as key to the event’s success, including the Resident Student Association, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and NU’s Interfraternity Council. Several businesses also donated gift cards and other prizes to win in raffles. The event was advertised largely through word of mouth. Volunteers ran tables and spoke to other clubs to try to bring out as many people as possible.
“It’s really been incredible how many different people and organizations have reached out to help,” Horowitz said.
Group effort came together for a night of excitement. The crowd was lively and engaged during the game. Raffles helped raise approximately $1,500 for Special Olympics Massachusetts and Best Buddies. After the game, the players all received customized T-shirts and trophies along with resounding applause.
“I thought the event went even better than we planned,” Jacques said. “I knew I personally was going to have fun at the game, but it looked like everyone there was having fun: The fans, the Special Olympic athletes, the volunteers, the NU basketball teams and my committee.”
The organizers hope that this will become a yearly tradition at Northeastern as it has at other schools.
“Based on the positive responses we have received, we are planning to make this a yearly event,” Jacques said. “I think now that people have gone and enjoyed it, next year we could have even more fans there through word of mouth.”
Photo by Justine Newman