Boys get sporting chance to feel confident, useful

Published March 4, 2007

Boys in blue and red scrambled for loose balls on the basketball court at Lacoochee Elementary School.

The midday practice seemed a scrimmage without rules. Some players caught the ball and then took two or three steps before they dribbled. One boy in black and red Michael Jordan sneakers stood out as he dribbled and drove to easy layups. His jumper caught nothing but net - swoosh.

On the sidelines stood a white-haired woman dressed in jeans and silk long-sleeved shirt with a plastic whistle hanging from her neck: Judy Taylor. The smooth shooter was team captain and fourth-grader Tyree Austin, a natural leader for a group of black, white and Hispanic students - the Lacoochee Eagles Special Olympics basketball team.

"They don't play well together. They fuss and fight with each other, but when they take the court against another team, they're something," said coach Taylor with her trademark grin.

This is an improbable time for Taylor and her scrappy team. In the boys' first season of Special Olympics, they're headed to the state championships in Orlando on Friday.

At Lacoochee Elementary, one of the poorest schools in Pasco County, this is cause for pride and excitement. These children with learning disabilities have given their schoolmates, parents and teachers a reason to cheer.

"Some of these boys have very special needs," said principal Karen Marler. "This may be the opportunity in their lifetime to really shine, to experience the joy of success."

No one saw this coming. Taylor, a veteran special-ed teacher, joined Lacoochee last fall. The school, where more than 80 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches, hadn't participated in Special Olympics in a decade. But Special Olympics has been Taylor's passion since she first got involved in 1970. She jumped right in and organized soccer and basketball teams. She had never coached basketball before, but it seems she has been preparing for this role all her life. Her daddy she still calls him that after all these years was a basketball coach in the Panhandle, and she spent lots of time in the gym.

The school doesn't have an indoor basketball court, so the team practices outside. When the players first went to play against other schools, they initially struggled on the indoor courts with the different backboards and wooden floors.

Players subsisted on humility and hustle. They played in hand-me-down jerseys with faded numbers. When they travel to Orlando for the championships, they'll sport brand-new jerseys, thanks to the generosity of their coach and principal, who dug into their own pockets.

For the boys, being part of the team has opened doors to venture into a world well beyond their rural east Pasco community.

But most important, the success on the court has helped where it really matters: in the classroom.

Winning "gives them more self-confidence," Taylor said.

Grades have improved, as the team members see how effort produces results, whether it's on the basketball court or in math class.

Once they tasted success, they wanted more.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.