Monday, April 7, 2008

Special Olympics basketball tourney nets a crowd


UC Santa Barbara’s Thunderdome echoed with the squeaks of rubber hitting hardwood, the sharp report of referee whistles and the din of cheering fans yesterday afternoon as hundreds gathered for the 8th Annual Santa Barbara Special Olympics Basketball Tournament.
With more than 250 athletes, dozens of volunteers, approximately 50 coaches, and bleachers full of family members and friends, the Thunderdome rocked throughout the day.

Ali Sprott-Roen, the tournament director, said the event has been growing consistently during the past few years and the players just can’t get enough.
“They love it,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for competition that anyone else would want.”
With no age limit in place, Sprott-Roen said athletes run the gamut from young teenagers to 65-year-olds.
Many of them appeared fiercely competitive, burying their head in their hands after missing a close jumper or pumping their fist in the air after sinking a three-pointer. Others drained baskets and casually sauntered back to the other end of the court, clearly unaffected by whistles and cheers.
After an opening ceremony that featured a parade of athletes, the competition got underway with each team playing three games in a round-robin style to determine the winners.
The 28 teams who competed yesterday — up from 25 last year — traveled from as far away as San Luis Obispo and Santa Clarita. Divided by ability, they battled in seven separate divisions, vying for that first-place finish.
“This is like the World Series for them,” said Aaron Brown, an assistant coach for the Santa Barbara Allstars. “This is huge.”
He said his players are highly competitive and dedicated to the game, pressing him and head coach Daniel Flores constantly for tips.
“They demand that we coach them,” Brown said. “They want plays, they want to know how to play defense.”
Juan Aleman, who plays for the Allstars, said a group of friends introduced him to the world of Special Olympics basketball about five years ago and he has been hooked ever since.
“I’m always into basketball,” he said. “I love basketball. … We used to play after school every day.”
Aleman, a very outgoing and gregarious young man, brought along a sizeable contingent of fans who cheered on the Allstars as they battled Tri-Valley #1 in their final game yesterday.
After losing to the same team last year by a single point, Aleman said they had hoped to even the score by taking this year’s contest, but the Allstars fell again after an intense game, 21-23.
Matt Adams, a 20-year-old who traveled from Santa Clarita, had a bit more success with his fellow Bullsharks, winning all three games and going home as the champions of the blue division.
“We won every game,” he said. “We won the tournament.”
Coming from a sports-oriented family, Adams said he practices weekly and has been playing since he was 15. When he’s not hitting the court himself, he said he enjoys watching his favorite sports team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
As the final games drew to a close, the teams gathered for an awards ceremony hosted by Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown, who announced the winners and shook their hands.
Division winners included the Carpinteria Dunkers, the Simi Valley Stars #1, the Conejo Champs #3, and Camarillo #1. In the hotly contested orange division, three teams — Camarillo #2, the Santa Clarita Valley Blue Sharks and the Lompoc Braves — shared first place.
The Santa Clarita Valley Great Whites also split the red division title with the San Luis Obispo Wildcats.
Participating in the tournament qualified all 28 teams for the Summer Games, slated to take place in Long Beach in June.
Organizers said the tournament, one of the biggest in the area, is fully supported by donations from local community members and foundations, keeping it free for athletes.
“We really rely on our volunteer coaches,” Sprott-Roen said.
She also thanked the many volunteers who came out to serve as scorekeepers or in other capacities, calling them crucial to pulling off the tournament without a hitch.

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