November 22, 2014

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A very special team

LORAIN – No one took losing the gym space well, especially not the dozen or so Special Olympics athletes who had finally begun to feel normal for the first time in their lives.

Three years ago, a basketball team of athletes with developmental disabilities learned they didn’t have a place to play and therefore the team had to be disbanded.

“It was really hard on them,” said Krystal Tavenner, the team’s coach. “They finally felt like they belonged.”

They were all teenagers, many were deemed mentally retarded and developmentally disabled. Those who didn’t have the coordination or ability to actually play the game would spend practices shooting at a square on the wall. Some eventually moved on to become productive members of the team, which faced other local special-needs teams.

“I remember this one child, Mark, who came in one day and said, ‘I’m tired of being made fun of, tired of being called stupid.’ It was great for them having a program that made them feel normal,” Tavenner said. “They could play basketball with people who were just like them.”

The gym they had used at Masson Elementary in Lorain could no longer provide space for them during the times they needed, Tavenner said. She searched everywhere for a new spot, but no one could offer them gym space.

“We tried to work with Lorain City Schools and contacted numerous people, but nobody was willing to give up gym space,” she said. “We did not want to give up on the program. The kids love it, and we weren’t going to go away.”

Without a practice facility, the team was forced to disband, but Tavenner always intended to get it back together. She had only been coaching the team a short time, and although she has had no formal training with special-needs children, she did have experience coaching basketball and said area Special Olympics coordinator Kelli Dailey took a chance on her.

“I always loved basketball and I wanted to give back to the community,” she said. “This is a great opportunity, and I love working with the kids.”

It wasn’t until this spring when Tavenner learned one of her friends was running a gym in the former Lorain YMCA building that she realized a new team could be formed.

Doug Taylor, director of Next Level Images, leases space in the building off Tower Boulevard, which includes a basketball court.

“I’m a friend of Krystal’s and she contacted me with her predicament and I told her to come up with times,” Taylor said. “I enjoy seeing those guys coming in and working out. You can tell they really have a good time.”

Tavenner is in the recruiting process now and hopes others join the team before the season starts next month so they can begin the road toward earning a spot in the state Special Olympics.

When she was coach of the team before it disbanded, the players became so good they quickly ran out of local competition.

“We kept winning and soon we had no one left to play,” she said. “We were actually accused at one point of not having enough ‘special’ children, whatever that means. Other teams wanted to stop competing against us.”

With the help of her brother, Patrick, a 6-foot-7 former high school basketball star, Tavenner began teaching the children real basketball plays and quickly discovered they were actually learning not just how to play the game, but how to play it well.

“Patrick helped take it to a whole other level,” she said. “We ran through drills and all it took was repetition, and they were actually learning these drills.”

Contact Adam Wright at 329-7155 or awright@chroniclet.com.