Some are pretty good at the game. Some others are not. Some have been playing the game for years. Others are just getting their feet wet.
But none of that matters, because when athletes take to the court as part of the Fastbreak Basketball Buddy Ball Division, what counts most is that they are having fun.
“We take them through a year where we work on some skills, then come February we have a game where all 60 to 70 wind up playing in a huge game at ,” said Jon Alba, a long time coach and organizer of the Buddy ball program.
The Buddy Ball Division of Fastbreak invites children and young adults with special needs to learn the fundamentals of basketball, play and have fun. The program usually has between 60 and 70 players every year who range in age from 5 years old to 13 and older. Registration will be held on Saturday, Nov. 19, at from 10 a.m. to noon. Practices and games are held every Saturday at Chittick from 8:30 to 10 a.m., 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Parents are allowed to attend any or all of the sessions each week and the seasons begins Dec. 3 and will run until March. In addition, while registration begins Saturday, anyone who is interested can register at any time.
“It’s a win-win for everybody and it’s good for everybody,” said Alba. “At the end of the season we have an award ceremony, and the kids love that. They have a blast and it’s really just grown tremendously over the past couple of years.”
Many players suffer from various levels of autism, cerebral palsy, which can make the sport challenging for them, and for their coaches.
“Basically, they all have various special needs,” said Alba. “Some are autistic, some are severely autistic, some have CP and we really kind of just stress the skills of basketball. It helps them get more coordinated and we create a nice environment. It’s very family oriented and the kids have a blast.”
Buddy Ball isn’t just for children and young adults with special needs though. Assisting the coaches and the players are “Pals,” volunteers from junior high school and high school who are working on their school community service requirements. In fact, the Pal program is how Alba got involved himself when his son was looking for community service projects five years ago.
“My son needed community service and I said 'if you do it, then I’ll do it.' I wound up doing it and loved it,” he said. “I’ve won championships and it’s not as rewarding as coaching in Buddy Ball.”
The Buddy Ball program was started by Ward Byrnes and thanks to volunteers like Alba, it has taken off. Alba says the program just keeps getting bigger and bigger. In addition, parents get almost as much out of as their children by giving them a break for a little while and a chance to see their children play a sport.
"It’s a learning experience, and we've learned every year how to deal with their special needs and adapt to that and help them succeed," said Alba. "We try to teach this to the Pals in a seminar before they start and we’re there to guide them."
Registration for Buddy Ball is $40. Participants get a T-shirt, basketball and a season full of fun.