MAIL PHOTO/PATRICK HAMILTON
TEAM-MATES: Shooting Stars coach Ed Book with two of his players, 16-year-old Gabby Green and 15-year-old Karlin Spiers, at a Fulton Hogan Basketball League game in the Nelson College gym.
Nelson's Fulton Hogan Basketball League really is a case of a sport where it's the taking part that counts:
Karlin Spiers grabbed a rebound early in last Saturday's Fulton Hogan Basketball League Tournament, dribbled down court around the mostly stationary defenders, and suddenly found no one between him and the goal.
With raucous support from the seats behind the goal, Karlin rushed inside the lane and launched a shot that went nowhere near the basket. The only sound louder than the ball clanking off the top of the backboard was his mother's voice from the stands in the Nelson College gymnasium. "Stop and aim!"
Adhering to his mother's loving orders and the gentle reminder of his coach, former Nelson Giants star centre Ed Book, Karlin again broke free from midcourt and rushed down the lane. This time, he stopped, stared at the goal through his wire-rimmed glasses, and carefully lifted the ball towards the basket. Everyone -- players, coaches, parents, spectators, team-mates -- stopped and watched in silence as the ball floated upwards, caromed softly off the backboard and dropped through the net without scraping the rim.
The crowd roared. His mum stood and clapped, and Book hollered, "That's the way to use the board, Karlin", as the 15-year-old Shooting Stars hotshot trotted back down the court with a little fist pump and a smile.
Such joy has been registered on the players' faces every winter weekend for the past three years -- ever since basketball enthusiast Heather Walker decided to form a league for the growing number of participants with supported learning needs who kept showing up at the local college gymnasiums where she held basketball practices.
"I was coaching about 60 players every week and there was no weekly game," Walker says. "The need became very obvious."
Walker sought several sponsors until she landed Fulton Hogan Ltd Nelson, which provided uniforms with bright colours and large numbers for every team. She found a venue at the Jack Robins Stadium in Stoke, a Sunday night time slot, supportive parents, volunteer coaches and referees, and a slew of enthusiastic players. The league welcomed four B grade teams (for beginning players and those with severe learning disabilities) and four A grade teams. This season, it expanded to eight B grade teams with the same four A grade teams. The players' disabilities range from Down syndrome to autism to dyspraxia to brain injury to minor learning disability. But the coaches are quick to point out that all the players are registered with the Nelson Basketball Association and are treated like any other player, whether they've been playing pick-up games for the past five years or have never dribbled a ball.
The goal is to improve with every game, achieve a sense of team spirit and pride, and get the most out of themselves.
Karlin got more than that in scoring 20 points in his team's 36-12 victory over the Firebirds in the B grade tournament opener. "I like to get the ball and shoot well, just like in practice," he says. Vicki Spiers says practising with various balls since her son was a baby has helped with his development, and the league has helped with his attitude. She describes Karlin as "cocky, a bit self-centred, and likes to grab the limelight".
"The league is teaching him to be a team player, and he is learning about winning and losing," she says. "The league has a far-reaching impact that goes way beyond the basketball court."
Wendy Green, mother of Shooting Stars player Gabby Green, says the league gives her daughter confidence and a purpose, and has allowed her to make more friends at school. It's also been a confidence boost for first-time Junior Giants player Lisa Driver.
"She used to stand around a lot at first," says her mother Lynne Driver. "Now if she gets the ball and dribbles up the court one time, she's satisfied. It gives her a sense of achievement." Debra Allen never played much of any sport when she joined the league during the inaugural season. Now, at 27, she goes to a local park and plays for hours, and recently started her first real job, as a kitchenhand in a cafe.
"What I find most enjoyable is mixing with the other players," Debra says.
"It's a fantastic vehicle to get them to be social," says Dennis Allen, Debra's father, who coaches her Aqua Jets team. "Our hardest job is to get them off the court."
Her mother Sue Allen calls the league "the highlight of their lives". It's the only game in town for most players, and they grasp every coach's word during timeouts and at practice.
Don Martin, Sport Tasman's Genesis Pathways manager, who coaches the Orange Roughies in the A grade, says the players are quite different from some of those in mainstream sports.
"There are no issues," Martin says. "They always turn up to training and for the games. There are no clique groups. They are there for the pure joy of playing." Martin and son Zeb often assist the players on the court during games. Understanding of the players' disabilities, referees rarely blow the whistle during B grade games. Most players aren't skilled enough to dribble with one hand, and some walk down court with the ball. Some are handed the ball by a parent helper and allowed to shoot uncontested. But A grade games are officiated just like any other, with players whistled for fouls, double-dribbling, travelling and most other violations.
"I didn't expect them to be good basketball players -- it's wicked," Zeb says. "They come here always smiling and come ready to play."
Those who have never played are the most challenging and satisfying for the coaches. Book, a special education teacher at Waimea College, says some play a game without ever touching the ball. Many autistic players have had to overcome sensory difficulties, like noise and people being very close to them. He teaches the necessary skills in small steps and watches the players improve with every dribble.
Book points to James Hall, who never played a team sport until this season.
"He came in halfway through his first game, got the ball, took a couple of dribbles, threw it underhand like (NBA Hall of Fame player) Rick Barry, and it was nothing but net. To see the look on his face like, `I just did that', was just fantastic."
Don Martin saw that look on his players' faces after the Orange Roughies' semifinal win over the Bulls.
"Not many sports teams look that happy. These guys show all the joy.
"It's that desire to do something they are very passionate about. A lot of them may never work. If you take work out of our lives, what's left? It balances their lives a lot and gives them something they can feel good about."
Hall's basket and the Roughies' win were both followed by cheers louder than anything Book says he experiences in his Men's League games.
Regular-season games at Jack Robins Stadium often draw 100 spectators, and there were at least twice that many at Nelson College for Sunday night's A grade final between the Roughies and the Black Magic.
The Magic, which had lost only one game all season, silenced the crowd with its explosive play. The Roughies' top player Graeme Porter kept his team in the game early with his aggressive drive-to-the-hoop style. The Magic responded with a superior display of passing, shooting and rebounding. Robert Shatford scored a game-high 28 points, and Sean Tremlett hit two three-pointers en route to a 24-point performance.
"This was our biggest and best win of the season," Magic coach Zhan Baird-Booth said. "They did everything right and showed what we can do if we put in the practice."
Shatford and Tremlett sat with smiles on the gymnasium floor alongside their Magic team-mates after their 76-48 triumph as they awaited the championship trophy during the prizegiving ceremony.
"This is something I've worked to win for three years, and we finally did it," said 19-year-old Shatford.
"I feel like I've achieved something in my life."