Delaware celebrated a bit of its own March Madness last weekend when 35 teams took over the University of Delaware Bob Carpenter Center for the annual Special Olympics Delaware (SODE) basketball tournament.
For tournament participants (350 in total), the event is not so much about who comes out on top, but rather a thrilling day of nonstop, friendly competition that delights players, their friends, families, coaches and volunteers.
The tournament capped off an intense season of practices – two hours every Saturday night – and several regular season games, all managed by enthusiastic volunteers with both a passion for the game and a desire to serve.
Many of the coaches have given of their time for years and wouldn’t miss this event even if it meant forgoing viewing of a big NCAA tournament game.
Sanford Senior and Special Olympics Coach James Steinberger
That includes Sanford School senior James Steinberger, coach of the Wilmington Wizards Magic. Steinberger is himself a seasoned high school league player — he played varsity since 10th grade and this past season played for an elite prep program in NJ — who began volunteering with the Special Olympics when he was just 12 years of age.
His 7th grade Tower Hill class participated in a disABILITIES unit, where students met and interacted with people with various physical and intellectual disabilities. That introduction had a big impact on Steinberger.
“They (SODE) brought in a weight lifter, for example, and they did a demonstration. We went to the weight room and we all tried to beat him in arm wrestling, and no one did! Those interactions that day piqued my interest. And I said to my parents, ‘I want to get involved with this.’ Here I am now, still involved, and this is my sixth year, and I love it.”
CSW Junior and Special Olympics Coach Sophia Shah
Charter School of Wilmington junior Sophia Shah also volunteers with the SODE basketball program. She’s been with the Newark Dragons team for two years. “I just like to help out the team. I give them instructions, show them how to play and just try to do everything I can to help.”
Like Steinberger, Shah volunteers with SODE on her own. She, too, became introduced to Special Olympics through school events. “I thought the program was just so inspiring. To see so many people trying to engage in sports every single day and giving it their all.”
Typically, high school students serve in junior coaching positions, but for the past couple years Steinberger has assumed a bigger leadership role with his team, which is comprised of people of all ages, men and women.
Steinberger says anyone who enjoys coaching basketball could help out with the SODE program. “I’m sure there’s a stigma that intellectually disabled people, for example, those with Autism or Downs Syndrome, are not as verbal, or they can’t communicate in the same way. But that’s really just not true. While there are some limitations, many of them are super smart and they can all communicate. You can have normal conversations with them. I try to be more encouraging. But a lot of the coaching techniques are the same for running plays and going through drills.”
“I love basketball, and to be able to share my love and passion for the game with all of these kids and adults who may not be as fortunate to have some of the luxuries I do and to be able to play for their school – it’s nice to give them a platform to play as well,” he said.