SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ — On Monday night at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, the Wolves Basketball Academy’s summer basketball league played its championship game. Players from the two finalists went back and forth exchanging baskets in hopes of lifting the trophy.
From afar, the game looked no different from any other summer rec game: high school and college students shooting long-range jumpers, looking to make break away steals and enjoying the opportunity to play the sport they love.
A closer look revealed the league is much more than your average summer league.
“I haven’t heard of anything like this league,” basketball player Ryan Kessler said. “As far as I know it is one of a kind and it is a great time.”
Each team in the league has a player with special needs playing on the same court as typical players. The special needs players run the court, defend other players, grab rebounds and play the game like any other teammate.
The league is the brainchild of Jeff Mayerson, founder of the Wolves Basketball Academy. For the last few years, the Wolves have held a weekly basketball clinic for children with special needs during the fall and winter where coaches teach players of all ages basketball skills and techniques.
“I have been running a clinic for three years,” Mayerson said. “Watching some of the kids improve, I wanted to see if they could handle playing in a real league.”
When putting together his high school spring league, he puts one special needs player on each squad.
“I felt like putting one special needs boy on a team with everyone else, they would learn a lot,” Mayerson said. “Learn how to move, learn how to pass, learn how to play defense. It has been a huge success.”
“It is one of the better programs I have come across in a long time,” Jeff Banks, father of special needs player Ethan Banks, said. “He gets to experience actually playing basketball with typical young adults. I couldn’t speak more highly about it. This has been the most amazing program and I support it 120 percent.”
“A lot of times they give up a shot or a chance to win the game to get one of them the shot. That’s what life is about and I love watching these kids learn how to do that,” Mayerson said.
For the players on the court, they do not mind giving up shots for their special needs teammate. In fact, they enjoy the opportunities. Many of the players take it upon themselves to help improve their teammates' skills.
“It helps make us be better teachers,” Michael Iarrapino said. “Whatever knowledge we can give to them is really helpful. It was nice to see them grow throughout the year and see them develop.”
“[Ethan] has come much further than I ever expected and the kids are a big part of that by how they include him, give him the ball and make him feel a part of something,” Jeff Banks said of his son's development.
Even though the special needs players get to go one-on-one, they are still very much involved in the team aspect of the game. They play help defense, go up against others in crowds for rebounds, give out high fives and even bring the ball up the court.
And the game is still basketball. Everyone is trying to win. The games are fast-paced and usually involve many transition baskets and scoring sprees.
“Your child is not going to be coddled,” Laurinda Pedro, mother of special needs player Josh Pedro, said. “You can’t expect that some of the kids are not going to bump into him accidently because he is special needs. They are going to bump into you. They are going to treat you like one of the boys.”
The players with special needs also see their social skills improve. Due to the teamwork needed to succeed in basketball, the special needs players see their communication skills and confidence grow over their time on the court.
“Especially kids that are special needs, I lot of them suffer from social discrepancies,” Banks said. “[This program has Ethan] come out of his shell a little bit. They make him feel a part of something. This is one of the only things he looks forward to and doesn’t give me a hard time about. For him to want to do something, it is a big deal.”