Happy November! October was Down Syndrome Awareness Month… how did it go by so fast? Even though I’m a little behind the ball, I’d like like to share this little story with you:
It was the last game of our son’s basketball season, and his fifth-grade team was winning. Towards the end of the last quarter, the coaches called a time out. The teams huddled around their coaches and listened to their instructions. Then the players ran back onto the court to finish the game.
But something surprising happened. Instead of playing with their usual energy and aggression, the boys on my son’s team started fumbling. A player on the opposing team quickly got hold of the ball and tossed it to his teammate, No. 33. It was a strange move for a player who only had a few minutes left to close the gap on the score. You see, No. 33 was the least athletic kid on the team. He was the smallest. He was the slowest. He had Down Syndrome.
At this point any kid on my son’s team could have easily taken the ball from No. 33. But they were all “busy” guarding other players. No. 33 saw his golden opportunity. He threw the ball at the hoop… and missed. One of the kids on his team caught the ball and gently lobbed it back to him. Amazed that he was getting a second chance to shoot, No. 33 took aim and threw the ball. He missed by a long shot.
Some kids on my son’s team went for the rebound but were “clumsy”, and again the opposing team gained control of the ball. By now we were all catching on to what was really happening. The boys on both teams were orchestrating their moves so the player with Down Syndrome would have a chance to score. When No.33 had the ball in his hands again, everyone in the gym waited with abated breath, hoping that he would score. Again No. 33 took aim and shot. Again he missed. A sigh of sympathy swept through the parents watching on the sidelines.
Not to be outdone by the boys who were “playing to lose”, the referee made a bogus travel call and the scorekeeper stopped the clock. Thus, to his astonishment, No. 33 had the ball yet again. There was silence in the gym as we all watched this little boy with Down Syndrome shoot for the fourth time. And as if by a miracle, the ball hit the backboard and went through the hoop. Everyone erupted with cheers and applause. With a wide grin on his happy face, No. 33 raised his arms in triumph and jumped for joy.
No. 33’s team lost the game; they had lost almost every game that season. But every boy who played in that game was a winner. For, allowing a child with Down Syndrome to play basketball with them taught these boys some great life lessons: to be accepting of those who are weaker and to lose graciously so someone else can score. It gave them the opportunity to play with true sportsmanship and compassion. And they rose to the occasion.
When the basketball game ended, the referee gave No. 33 the game ball as a prize. His teammates slapped him on the back, congratulating him. The boy was on cloud nine and could not stop smiling. His father, moved by the warm enthusiasm for his son’s accomplishment, struggled to hold back tears of pride and gratitude. As I looked at my own son with Trisomy 21, who was sitting happily in his big brother’s lap, I felt a surge of joy. Two dozen fifth-grade boys had given a kid with Down Syndrome a chance to shine. It was one small reason to hope for acceptance and inclusion for kids with special needs. It was a score for Down Syndrome.