By Randy Kindred
Conference tournament week in college basketball produced a number of fantastic finishes. The upcoming NCAA Tournament will provide a few more.
Yet, on Saturday, you didn’t need to be in an arena packed with 20,000 fans or in front of a television to see a hard-fought battle go down to the final buzzer.
The big-name college programs had nothing on the Weston Bridges Warriors of Aurora and the Pontiac A.I.R. 66’ers Blue in the Special Olympics Illinois State Basketball Tournament in Bloomington-Normal. They turned Court 8 at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center into a captivating theater, with the Warriors overcoming a double-digit, halftime deficit to edge the 66’ers, 56-55.
“They didn’t give up hope,” Warriors coach Blake Cline said of his players. “They wanted to win. I told them, ‘You have 16 minutes left. You have nothing to lose. This is the last game of the season so give it everything you’ve got.’ They did.”
The victory earned the Warriors second place in their division. The manner in which it occurred was indicative of the Special Olympics Illinois spirit of competition.
That spirit was everywhere at Shirk Center and Illinois State University’s Horton Field House, venues for the tournament. Competing teams qualified for state by taking first place in their area competitions.
For the Warriors, their state silver medals capped a months-long journey.
“They’ve had a lot of growth,” Cline said. “To see them grow together throughout the season into a culminating event like this, it’s special. It’s the best thing ever.”
66’ers coach Maryssa McCoy also has witnessed growth in her players, who took home bronze medals.
A former basketball player at Prairie Central High School in Fairbury, McCoy is coordinator for Pontiac’s A.I.R. (Adaptive Inclusive Recreation) program, which offers basketball, bowling and track. She coaches all three.
Her athletes get opportunities. What does she get?
“It’s seeing their successes and seeing them having fun,” McCoy said. “A lot of them don’t get to do things other than Special Olympics Illinois.”
Officially, giving back
Shelby Bard of Tallula and Mike Corrigan of Skokie were the officials for the Warriors-66ers game.
Bard was officiating at the state tournament for the third straight year and can appreciate the value of officials. He also is a Special Olympics Illinois athlete, having competed in basketball in the past and planning to do so in bowling this year.
“To me, it’s kind of a giving back sort of thing,” he said. “Any opportunity for them is an opportunity for myself. If we, as officials, don’t give our time and don’t give back, this sort of event would not happen.”
Corrigan has officiated at the state tournament for 15 years, calling it “fantastic.”
“Once you do it, you get hooked and you can’t wait to come back,” Corrigan said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s what sports are all about. Sometimes they (the athletes) get intense, which is nice. It means a lot to them and they work really, really hard. You like to see the smiles.”
‘Meet the Inspired’
The ‘Meet the Inspired’ team of Special Olympics Illinois Athlete Leaders provided video and podcast coverage live from the tournament.
Meet the Inspired made its debut last June at Summer Games in Normal. The 2023 State Basketball Tournament was its third appearance at a Special Olympics Illinois event.
Daniel Smrokowski, 34, has competed in Special Olympics Illinois basketball and swimming at the state level. His passion is sharing stories of fellow athletes and advocating for them.
He began his Special Chronicles podcast while earning his degree in journalism from Roosevelt University in Chicago.
“When he graduated he said, ‘Dad, we shouldn’t stop this. We are making a difference,’” said Adam Smrokowski, Daniel’s father. “He said, ‘People with disabilities want to have their stories heard from their perspective rather than from somebody who has no idea what it’s like.’”
Daniel was a member of the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary Marketing & Communications Committee, helping develop and initiate communications and media relations. He has written columns for the Chicago Sun-Times in addition to his podcasts, videos, blogs and public speaking that give a voice to those with special needs.
To learn more and view results from the 2023 State Basketball Tournament, click here.