By Steve Robinson | March 17, 2019 - 10:52 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Over the years, I have covered a number of Special Olympics Illinois annual State Basketball Tournaments. At the majority of these, I meet athletes who are happy to be playing on a team and parents and other family members who cheer on their relative knowing the goal of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities is what is to be highlighted when telling their stories and not so much the sports aspect of the story.

As the reporter, that is sometimes tough to explain to editors who are used to a certain set of facts that go, normally, hand-in-hand with a particular story. But when you cover Special Olympics sporting events, the team’s record or other sorts of facts commonly found within sports stories aren’t what the organization wants readers to take note of first and foremost.

They want you to see that sports is the leading component to helping include people with intellectual disabilities into being able to function in society. That’s because the athletes go from learning the ins and outs of sports to the ins and outs of holding down a job and being able to add contributions to society. The athletic part helps the athletes stay active and gain friends and new relationships and the ability to belong to society.

And usually, it is young people, age 8 and up, or young adults who participate in these events. I would tell you I have never encountered a family where a parent and child were both part of Special Olympics. And I could have told you that up until this past weekend. Then I met father and son, John Gordon, Sr. and John Gordon, Jr., from the Village of McLean.

John Sr., 37, has been involved in Special Olympics for a number of years but basketball is the only sport he has ever played in Special Olympics, he explained. He works for a contractor when he isn’t involved with the organization. John Jr., who I will identify by his nickname, J. T. from here going forward, is a freshman at Stanford Olympia High School. J. T. is the youngest player on the Falcons team representing Special Opportunities Available in Recreation, also known as SOAR, which is jointly funded by the Parks and Recreation Departments of the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington.

J. T. said his friends at school “know I’m on a Special Olympics team and they know I’m on the team with my dad, so that’s even better. Some people give me compliments about it and I love that.” John Sr. knows it has been “over five years since he laced up his sneakers and this season has been interesting as a result. When he isn’t playing basketball, John Sr. works as a roofer.

Players on the SOAR Falcons squad range in age from J. T. at age 15 to the oldest player, Dennis Stanley, who is age 54. Head coach Doug Dowell and assistant coach Joe Heaser are at the controls of trying to continue what has been a rocky season for the Falcons. They were 4-4 during this season and got into the State Tournament literally by the luck of the draw.

“Special Olympics requires a minimum of three games played to qualify for the ability to compete at regional basketball in January, explained Maggie Rutenbeck, program manager for SOAR. And there would have been a district competition this year, but poor winter weather forced Special Olympics Illinois’ home office in Normal to cancel the district competition. Since SOAR has four basketball squads with players of varying skill levels, the team selected to go to State Finals was drawn out of a hat, Rutenbeck said. Dowell’s team received the lucky pick.

“They’re quite the duo,” Rutenbeck said of John and J. T. “J. T. has the skill but doesn’t have the experience his dad does. John has turned into the fine example of sportsmanship on and off the court, and his son gets to see that firsthand. Leading by example is what John is showing his son.”

Dowell, who has been coaching the Falcons for six years, added, “John understands the importance of getting everybody on the team involved.” Of J. T., Dowell said, “He’s a good ballplayer, so he has a lot of confidence in his ability. He also knows several of the players so that really helps him on the court. He takes direction well, so he’s easy to coach.”

As it turns out, John and J. T. aren’t the only kin on the team. John’s sister, Patty Gordon, is also on this squad, although she did not play here because of a broken arm she suffered a month ago.

Dowell said the whole family has “basketball savvy.” He added having the skills the trio brings is “just that much more beneficial to the team. It’s not just where to dribble and where to shoot. It’s learning to see the open guy, where you should be going next. They really picked up on those concepts of basketball.”

They have picked up on the concepts to the point that, once a year, Dowell’s team scrimmages with the teams from El Paso High School.

In school, J. T. said his favorite subject is “math, easily. I love math.” He’s also a big fan of gymnastics.

As for how SOAR Falcons did during the tournament, they beat the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association team from Crystal Lake, 54-37 on Saturday, and followed that up Sunday with a 48-42 win over Loyola Park Scorpions to earn a gold medal in their four-team division.

Talking to them in Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus, John said he would “come out here every day” to play basketball. J. T. said now that basketball has wound down, he’s giving some thought to taking up another Special Olympics sport, Track, specifically, he said, “long jump, for sure.” He was quick to add the 40 meter dash to the list of competitions he’d like to enter once spring sports practice starts. You get the feeling that since things went well for him his first time out that once he takes to the track, even if his dad will be sitting in the bleachers for those events, that J. T. will continue to grow in his sports knowledge and the maturity that comes with it.

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