Special Olympics coach inspired by players
JUN 01, 2012 1:50a ET
"In the middle!" he said as five of his nine players positioned themselves on defense early in the game against Francis Howell.
"Oh, good job!" he said later in the first quarter after his son Jeff missed a layup. "Good try!"
Minor watched with excitement from the end of his bench. The demeanor had become a consistent part of his two decades as a parent-coach of the Blue Springs, Mo., team. He nodded when Tim McCullum made a short-range shot that gave Rainbow Hoops a 2-0 lead. Later, he looked into a huddle with his squad ahead 14-10 after the second quarter pleased with their intensity.
"I appreciate you guys," said Minor, 55. "You're playing hard out there."
Those words were a reminder of the release that basketball gives his players, men and women whose ages range from late teens to early 30s. Rainbow Hoops is supported by the Rainbow Center for Communicative Disorders, a day school in suburban Kansas City that assists people with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other communication and behavioral disorders.
But the coach's relationship with the team has produced another benefit. Minor, a former first baseman at William Jewell (Mo.) College from 1977-78, has come to appreciate what the squad has taught him about cherishing each day together.
Leading a Special Olympics team has been one of Minor's greatest joys in life. In many ways, though, his players have touched him.
"Life is a privilege," he said. "Don't take anything for granted. Treat these people like normal. They don't want to be treated like they're different. Nobody wants to be like they're different. … Their handicaps might be limiting, but their expectations and effort are what's important."
Minor senses a bond with each grinning face on the court. On Thursday morning, thoughts of excessive contracts, packaged emotion in stale arenas and other weaknesses of the modern sports culture seemed distant when Minor jotted notes on a yellow legal pad early in the second half.
More than anything else, the Special Olympics are about community, Minor says, and it's easy to see why when watching Rainbow Hoops play. It's seen in Minor beaming on the bench after Del Grimaldi steals the ball and is fouled on a layup attempt late in the first half. It's seen in Minor's halftime speech when he says, "Remember, it's a long game. Don't push yourself too hard. … Smile on your faces." And it's seen in Joy Schull remaining under the basket while her teammates jog back on defense, because the game moves too fast for her to play a full-court length, but Minor loves watching her reaction after she makes a shot.
"A lot of them, this is their outlet," Minor said. "This is their vacation. Their folks can't get them out to do much. This is a really big deal. They'll never have the college experience. … These guys take nothing for granted. Any smile, any handshake, any high-five you can give them, they really appreciate it. They don't get it outside this arena very often from the general population.
"As difficult as it might be, it's worth it."
It has been worth it for Minor since he started coaching, after he enrolled Jeff at the Rainbow Center for Communicative Disorders. Jeff was born with partially developed lungs. He suffered from pneumonia almost every spring and fall, and the father struggled in his son's younger years to find a nurturing environment within a public school.
As years have passed, Minor has enjoyed several rewards with Rainbow Hoops. Satisfaction comes from seeing players like William Currie discover a vibrant social circle after roughing it for more than two years on the streets of Kansas City. Satisfaction comes from having former players call to quiz him about the team's progress. And satisfaction comes from a moment about a decade ago when a former player named Krystal fell to the court during a game, only to laugh hysterically after picking herself up.
"What's the matter?" Minor recalled saying to her. "You OK? You need anything? What's up?"
"I got up all by myself," Krystal said.
"It's a good organization to be part of, no matter what level that you're involved – as a volunteer, as a spectator," said Bea Webb, another Kansas City-area Special Olympics basketball coach. "You just get caught up in the moment."
Moments make the experience special for Minor, too. He was a promising talent at William Jewell, and peers told him he had a chance to play as a professional before breaking his right hand after a pitch hit him in spring 1978. Despite carrying major league dreams, though, Minor wouldn't trade his Special Olympics memories for any personal accomplishments in sports.
"I know that he's a very positive and spiritual influence to the kids," said John Trussell, Rainbow Hoops' co-coach. "He's always behind them. … These kids know that he loves them and he cares for them."
He does love and care for them. And he wants them to thrive, too.
Minor called out commands with Rainbow Hoops extending its lead early in the fourth quarter Thursday morning. He stood near half-court, a blue-collared shirt tucked into his khaki shorts, and his deep voice carried over the sound of the dribble of the ball.
"Kyle," Minor said. "Stay on that side!"
"Go get'em, Del!" he said.
"Help out!" he continued. "Our ball!"
Minor watched the sometimes sloppy and disjointed action move in front of him. He adopted a theme of respect for the season, no matter the challenge of the moment. He stressed to his players that everything in life can't be controlled, but a quality attitude and work ethic usually produce positive results.
That effort can translate beyond the basketball. Minor hopes his players' work on the court will make them try harder in the classroom. Excellence can become habit, and the coach wants make ambition part of their lives.
"I enjoy playing, and I get to play on my team," said Jeff Minor, 27.
"It's actually kind of great to do this," said Grimaldi 19. "Being a part of this team is my favorite thing."
Those responses show how Minor has influenced the students closest to him. He believes happiness is a collective effort; if you make the world a better place for someone in need, then everyone's outlook will improve. A selfless approach makes everyone whole.
When it was over, everyone on Rainbow Hoops' bench felt complete. Minor walked to the end of a handshake line after his team clinched a 28-22 victory. He greeted his players one-by-one along the way.
"Good job," he said as he reached the back of the line. "Good job."
As he spoke, Minor knew the result wasn't as important as the journey lived. Another game was complete, and he learned more about his players' resolve and resilience. They had touched him, charmed him and given him a new perspective on life, like so many times before in the past two decades.
As he walked off the court, Minor embraced the wonder.
"I can't help but get excited," he said.
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