The auditorium was packed Saturday with members of the East Brunswick community shouting and smiling as they cheered on the participants in Ward Byrne’s Fastbreak Buddy Ball’s 5th Annual Basketball Game Day.
The game was played in memory of 10-year-old Findlay Urban, a member of the East Brunswick Buddy Ball Baseball and who died in March of 2010. The Buddy Ball division partners special needs athletes with “PALs,” who assist the players on the court and during practices and games.
Brad Cregge, session coordinator, and Buddy Ball PAL, Eric Ventrice, made the introductions for both All-star teams to start off the event. Buddy Ball players Kelly Conlon and Robert Cipoletti were honorary captains of All-Star team Blue and Leslie Grasso and Anthony Zaccaria were the honorary captains of team Red.
Kenny Geiger, Jonathan Luger, Diana Weiner, and Brandon Green sang the national anthem and the games were underway.
Team Red’s Brandon and Alex Speilman displayed a brotherly chemistry on the court, working together to score the first point of the game.
“He’s my brother, I always know where he is on the court,” said Alex after a long pass to his brother.
Team Blue’s Joey Mangiaracina quickly answered back with a Jeremy-Lin-like drive to the basket.
“I was on a breakaway and I just took it,” said Joey.
The score was 16-14 at half-time and winded players on both teams left the court to rehydrate and get readty for the second half. As players rested, The East Brunswick High School Cheerleaders took to the court and entertained the players and spectators with their uplifting cheers and acrobatic routines.
Smiles turned to tears of joy as everyone sat silently and watched a video presentation in which everyone, from PAL’s to Buddies to program leaders, spoke about the joy they get from being a part of Ward Byrne’s Buddy Ball. The presentation came to a close but not before thanking Program Director Ward Byrne.
“Everybody poured everything they had into this,” said Byrne in an interview. “It’s not about the ‘me’ it’s about ‘we.’ ”
Byrne could not have done it without program leaders Kevin McAleer, Melinda Grande, Sue DeGraw, Maureen Alexander, Jon Alba, Dave Agey, and Howard Alexander.
“The staff just shows you the character of the program—teamwork,” said Byrne.
PALs who mentor the buddies throughout the year are just as affected by Buddy Ball as the participants.
"I love the feeling I get when I see them smile,” said PAL and game announcer Eric Ventrice. “Watching their faces when they score a point means the world to me.”
After dedicating five years to being a PAL, Brad Gregge signed on as a session coordinator for the program.
“I just couldn’t leave these guys,” he said.
Parents were also emotionally touched by the event.
“This event provides my son with an opportunity to have fun playing basketball, an opportunity he would otherwise not be afforded,” said Sue Zaccaria, mother of Anthony, in an interview.
Once again the spirit of competition and sportsmanship filled the air as the players took the court for the second half.
“I love playing,” said Red team member Lawrence Neil, who handled the ball and dribbled tremendously despite having to work around his wheelchair.
At the end of the game the Blue team emerged victorious, 38-32. Although the scoreboard suggested that someone lost, every one’s giant smiles suggested otherwise.
Ward Byrne closed the ceremony, thanking all of the Buddies who played, the PALs who mentored, the program leaders who dedicated so much of their time and themselves to the event and the parents and families who came and showed their support.
“Sometimes you want to cry,” said Co-Director, Kevin McAleer. “You just know that these kids will grow up to be good people and give something back.”