My new hero is Eric. He plays for my new favorite sports team: The special education squad from Dallas' Conrad High School.
Seemingly an odd choice, because this year Eric probably won't score many baskets and Conrad likely won't win many games. Utterly immaterial, because they've already completed a perfect season.
Autism be damned.
I went to the Texas Special Olympics/Dallas Area basketball tournament last weekend in Allen and Lucas seeking a good story from what I figured was a great cause. What'd I find?
A whole new perspective.
Reason to forget the first wife and the second mortgage and that third seed that sabotaged last year's March Madness bracket. A belief that—despite the crumbling economy, faltering newspapers and unprecedented despair—good things can still happen to good people. A legitimate excuse to not give a spit about Terrell Owens' ego or Jason Kidd's contract or Alex Rodriguez's steroids or South Oak Cliff's grade-changing.
In the process of watching teenagers ooze boundless hope, unbridled joy and unconditional optimism, I rediscovered my own smile.
How? By witnessing a basketball team lose a game so badly that the scoreboard was turned off before halftime as to not embarrass anyone with the final margin. It wasn't 100-0. Nor will it—as a lopsided loss did for another Dallas high school team recently—catapult the losing players into national notoriety.
There'll be no Good Morning America cameras at Conrad's next practice. And no spiffy new shoe or uniform donations from Nike. There will be, however, a tiny, moldable snowball of confidence earned from stepping onto the court with autism.
"Just that these kids, especially Eric, are out here, in this environment, that's the real victory," Conrad volunteer coach Gayland Sherman said of his team's first-ever tournament game last Friday night at Allen's Ereckson Middle School. "I couldn't be more proud of them."
Conrad was overwhelmed by its surroundings and overmatched by its first-round opponent from Greenville/Hunt County. The score was 22-4 when both coaches agreed to reset the score to 0-0 and run the clock continuously. Considering the circumstances, zero to be ashamed of.
In a game played in big gyms with bright lights and bold buzzers, Conrad's five players—each autistic—have aversions to lights and crowds and sounds and bold and buzz. In a sport that requires synchronized teamwork amidst structured chaos, they are besieged by a social disorder whose sufferers prefer isolation.
"To say they are totally out of their comfort zone," said Vicki Mason-Foederer, a DISD adaptive physical education coach and head of a Dallas Special Olympics delegation covering 32 schools, "would be a huge understatement. On top of that, today at 3:30 their best player decided he wasn't playing. Who knows why? We'll never know. He just decided, and that was that."
Though Coach Sherman conducts a "practice" every day during school, his players' fundamentally flawed motor and mental skills make individual improvement and team achievement a slow, painful process. Eric, for example, hit nothing but hardwood during pre-game layups. The first dozen times the ball came his way during the game, he dodged it. The entire first half he never ventured beyond his half of the court. And after immediately being traumatized by the buzzer, he spent most of the game glancing at the scoreboard with index fingers in his ears.
When eventually brave enough to grab the ball after a made basket by Greenville, Eric didn't step out of bounds to throw the ball back in play, but rather began running—no, skipping—to the other end without as much as one dribble.
Every one in the gym—all 20 of us—was smiling with him, not at him.
After a timeout and an extended teaching session in which both Sherman and the referee displayed to Eric how to stand out of bounds and pass the ball to a teammate after a made basket, he took the ball and meticulously placed his feet inches from the inbound line. He then looked onto the court toward his frantically waving teammates, checked his feet, looked back up at his teammates, checked his feet, inched his feet backward, eyed his teammates and, finally, lofted a one-handed pass that sailed all of 4 feet but found its target.
The process took 15 seconds. The smile will last 15 lifetimes.
As Eric skipped—no, ran—down the court, you got Special Olympics' punch delivered right to your able-bodied, ample-minded kisser.
"I've been around pro sports, and you come across guys with bad attitudes even though they have millions and good health and everything you could ask for," said Texas Special Olympics Greater Dallas Area director Jesse McNeil. "It's sad. They've totally lost touch with reality. Then you come out and watch these kids. If a player falls down, no matter what is happening, the nine other players stop what they're doing and come over to help them up. I can't describe how rewarding this job is."
McNeil's area encompasses a 17-county region spanning Arlington to Louisiana. At last weekend's Rockin' the Rim tournament—highlighted by an opening ceremonies MC'd by Dallas Mavericks public address announcer Billy Hayes—there were 1,700 players and 97 teams, including Dallas squads from Highland Park, Kimball and Hillcrest high schools.
As for this week, there's only one mission: ensuring the R-word goes the way of the N-word. TSO sent a nine-person delegation—including three Dallas athletes—to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers to expunge "retarded" and replace it with "ID" (Intellectual Disability).
Said McNeil, "It's time we get that word out of the mainstream."
To be eligible for last weekend's tournament, players had to be diagnosed with a mental disorder or developmental delay such as autism, Down syndrome or an IQ below 70 ("normal" is considered 85-115). Autism may have been romanticized in Rain Man, but in basketball—in life—it's a handicap.
It is not, however, a dead end.
"It was fun a little bit," said Conrad senior Tim, who scored all three of his team's six points and graced me with the most polite interview of my 23-year career in professional journalism. "I like practice more. I get to pass. Help my friends. That's fun."
During one Greenville possession in the first half, four of Conrad's players huddled in a corner while Eric refused to cross mid-court. In the second half: progress.
Eric went to his knees on the court in an attempt to cradle a loose ball. He consistently threw legal, progressively longer and more accurate inbound passes. And in the final minute, the kid who an hour earlier was ready to go hide in the back seat of the team's bus, ran down the court, caught a pass from a teammate and launched a two-handed shot that glanced off the backboard and grazed the rim.
While he triumphantly raised both hands, the rest of us dabbed our tears. Before I could congratulate him, Eric was walking briskly out of the gym—fingers in ears.
Moved to a lower level of competition after its opening loss, Conrad won its final two games of the tournament.
My new hero can't break your ankles. But he will break your heart.
Then put it back together, stronger than ever.