Off the Short Bus

On this much, everyone agrees: Steve Fleming was unlike anything the Special Olympics had ever seen.

At 6 foot 3 and 240 pounds, the former Marine had an imposing presence. He was also black, and in the 23-year history of the Lewisville Special Olympics delegation, there had been few, if any, blacks.

What made him unusual, however, was his philosophy. He didn't believe that his kids were special. Sure they were special, as any kid is, and yes, they had special needs, but he wasn't going to treat them differently than he would any other athlete. Instead, he would treat them like they were "normal."

And so he recruited, he drew up plays, he yelled—he even encouraged his players to talk trash. It wasn't rare to see him playing right alongside his players—swatting shots, hitting fadeaways, talking smack the whole way. In his words, he brought the "black funk" to the Special Olympics.

He also brought a new attitude. He taught the players to have pride in themselves. "They're athletes, all right?" he would say. "They may not be able to perform at the level of the varsity basketball player, but they're still athletes, and I want to treat them like they're athletes."

For Fleming it was simple: Give a kid a gray T-shirt and a bologna sandwich, and he'll play like a Special Olympian. Hook him up with new gear, make sure he has Gatorade to drink, and you'll be amazed at his capabilities.

One day in practice, for example, he noticed a player laboring to get up the court. Fleming called her over and asked her what was wrong. "My feet hurt, coach," the girl said. Fleming took a look at the girl's shoes, and there he found the problem. The girl was wearing one shoe from K-Mart and another from Wal-Mart.

So Fleming called up Nike and said, "I'm sure you get people all the time asking for donations. I don't want that. Just give me a deal on some discontinued items." The Nike rep was stunned. Never before, in 20-odd years, had he heard a request like that. So he agreed to give Fleming some shoes. Not just for the girl with the mismatched sneakers, but for the entire team.

Suddenly, the girl who couldn't run was flying up and down the court. The same thing happened when Fleming convinced Nike to outfit his team with silky new uniforms and warm-up suits. A boy who could never hit a shot, now decked out in his new gear, went to the top of the key and drained five jumpers in a row. Fleming couldn't help but smile.

It was hard to argue with his results. In his first year as basketball coach, his team won the state championship. And they didn't just win. At times, Fleming had to play three-on-five to keep it competitive.

Despite his success, not everyone was pleased. To some parents, Fleming's emphasis on winning seemed to fly in the face of everything the Special Olympics stood for. For many kids, the Special Olympics was their only social outlet. If Fleming made it too competitive, they would have nowhere else to go.

Plus, some of the kids on his team, well, they hardly seemed "special." The trash-talking, the swagger—the worldliness, as one parent put it—it all seemed so out of place in the Special Olympics. It was like he had brought the cutthroat world of Texas youth sports into the last arena where kids could still play just for fun.

The Lewisville delegation was divided. Half the parents believed in what Fleming was doing. Thanks to him, their children were performing at levels they never thought possible. The rest wanted him gone. Eventually, the delegation, 120 families strong, would split in two: Half the parents would follow Fleming to form a new group, called the Flower Mound Mustangs, and the other half would stay behind to pick up the pieces.

Today, Fleming is out of Special Olympics altogether. In July the Special Olympics banned him for a year and disbanded his start-up delegation, the first time in recent memory either has happened in Texas.

As a result, some of the athletes that followed Fleming are now in limbo. Their parents say the old delegation won't welcome them back, and without another place to play, they aren't sure where they will go.

But Steve Fleming remains unapologetic. His methods, he is convinced, while controversial and unorthodox, are the most effective way to help kids with mental disabilities. "You aren't doing your kids any favors if you treat them with kid gloves," he says. "At some point, they're going to have to go out in the world, and if they're not ready, they'll get their teeth kicked in. So I try to treat them as much as possible like regular kids."

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde

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