Special Olympics hoops team vies for title
Collier Citizen - 1/27/2018
Roger Jacobsen wanted a way back into coaching basketball.
But he wanted a coaching outlet where "winning wasn't the most important thing."
Five years ago, he saw an ad which stated the need for local Special Olympics coaches.
Jacobsen went to one practice, and by the end of the night he was the head coach.
"As someone who doesn't have a special needs child, you immediately fall in love with these kids the moment you start working with them," Jacobsen, 64, said. "They have absolutely no prejudices. They don't care if you're black or white, male or female, Christian or Jewish. They love everybody, and it's really heartwarming to be around them."
Jacobsen has coached two Naples Special Olympics Skills Teams to state titles and he's looking to do it a third time this year. The Naples squad recently won the regional event in Sarasota by beating all five opponents it faced. The team now moves on to the state tournament, to be held in Tavares from Feb. 2-3.
The Skills Team is a bit different than the primary Special Olympics teams, in that they don't play a traditional five-on-five basketball game.
"Due to some of the challenges they face, they're awarded points for making a pass or catching the ball, and then extra points for making a basket," Jacobsen said. "But the one thing you see is, they also really want to win."
The team members range in age from 15 to the early 30s, which is also different from a traditional Special Olympics basketball team. But in the Skills division, there's really no age limit and the players are brought together by similar skill level and capabilities. The Naples squad consists of Joshua McClellan, Kevin Kennedy, Dominique O'Connell, Jules Porath, Fernando Gonzales and Jeffery Wohlers.
"I call them all my kids, although some are much older than others," Jacobsen said. "But they all have that youthful enthusiasm."
Naples won the regional title by beating Sarasota in the championship game, a team they lost to in the finals last year.
"I'm told some of the kids have trouble with short-term memory, but certainly not in this case," he said. "Before each game, I get our players together in the middle of the court. We hug each other and I ask them all what the most important thing is. And they'll always answer, 'Have fun.' But one of our players added, 'Yeah, but we've got to beat them, too.' They really remembered that team and they went out and played great."
Jacobsen said seeing his squad being presented with championship ribbons is something he'll never grow tired of.
"There are a few times in a man's life where he cries tears of joy," he said. "Getting married is one, the day your kids is born is another. But this was one of those moments to me. One of our kids called home and told his mom we had won and he started crying, he was so happy. Those are things you'll never forget, something that makes this so worthwhile."
Jacobsen said the experience helps his team socially, with the players' personalities peeking through at unexpected times.
"We had other (Special Olympics) kids on the bus ride with us, and some of the kids like to joke with our team a little," Jacobsen said. "That was happening to our captain, who simply held up his gold ribbon, which shut them up."
Two years ago, Jacobsen took a year off from coaching the Special Olympics squad due to a demanding work schedule. Jacobsen serves as the city's code enforcement manager and harbor master.
"The first time I got back to the gym last year, I was swarmed by 20 kids," he said. "That really makes you feel good."