Local Special Olympians play for the love of the game

STANWOOD — Many Special Olympians would not understand sophisticated strategies and other nuances of basketball. Certain offensive or defensive schemes, for instance, are simply too complex for these athletes.

But here’s something they understand very well. Basketball is a game and it’s supposed to be fun. So they enjoy playing, win or lose.

“When you go to one of these Special Olympics events,” said Rian Cool, coach of the Lake Stevens Vikings adult men’s basketball team, “you’re not going to see anything but smiles.”

They try to win, of course, so there is determination and exertion on every face. But then something good happens — and good things often happen unexpectedly, like the off-balance 3-point shot that banks off the backboard and goes in — and suddenly everyone on both teams is smiling.

“They take it very seriously,” Cool said. “They want to win, but they also know how to lose. Because this is more about the experience than it is about winning and losing.”

And that experience, he explained, “is about being a part of something that really means something.”

As many people know, Special Olympics offers outstanding programs for boys and girls with mental and physical disabilities. But there are also great programs for adults, and the large turnout for Sunday’s regional basketball tournament at Stanwood High School showed just how popular these programs are.

The participating teams included mostly men, but also a few women. Many of the athletes were in their 20s and 30s, but others were probably in their 50s.

Likewise, there was a spectrum of abilities. Some players had decent skills. Others had virtually no skills at all. And some had trouble remembering basic rules of the game — things like traveling and double-dribbling, leading to infractions the officials were generally kind enough to overlook.

But on the plus side, there was no taunting, no posing, no bickering and no technical fouls. So maybe these players understand aspects of the game better than the guys who make big bucks in the NBA.

And the reason it all works is coaches like Cool. He donates his time and his knowledge of the game because, he said, “I have a soft spot for the handicapped community and I always have.”

Cool, who is 31, was an outstanding player at Lake Stevens High School, where he graduated in 1997. He played two seasons at Edmonds Community College, and then went on to play three more years at universities in Australia.

After returning to the Puget Sound area in 2002, he took a job as a residential counselor for a network of group homes. One of the residents played on a Special Olympics basketball team, and that led Cool to learn of the organization’s need for coaches.

He is now in his seventh season as head coach of the Vikings. Of the team’s eight players, some have jobs, some drive, some live on their own and one, Rory Parrish of Lake Stevens, is married. Another player, Jordan Bates of Lake Stevens, was a high school classmate and basketball teammate of Cool’s who suffered a serious head injury in a car accident years ago.

“These guys care an awful lot about each other,” Cool said. “Whether they win or lose, they really appreciate being together. And as much as they enjoy it, I’m sure I enjoy it every bit as much. Maybe more.

“I don’t know of any other way, besides going to a concert at a hippie festival, where you’re going to see this type of love.”

The 40-year-old Parrish, whose wife Kerrie also participates in Special Olympics, says what he enjoys most is “the people. You meet a lot of good people in Special Olympics. … Winning is not everything. You want to have fun, work hard, and have a good team atmosphere.”

For teammate Drew Carleton of Lake Stevens, 31, the best part is “how we come together like one big family. I like that. … And I love sports. I’ve always been into sports since I was little.”

Cool admits he once considered giving his team multiple offensive plays and a handful of different defenses. “But that can get pretty overwhelming for most of the players,” he said, “so I’ve stripped it down.”

Now, he said, the Vikings essentially use one offense and one defense. But in practice, he added, “I make them work real hard. I push them to their limits.”

For Cool, the reward is twofold. It’s about what he gives, but also what he gets.

“I work downtown in an office building,” he said, “so I go to meetings all the time. And I also do real estate. But what I don’t do a lot of times is take the time to smell the roses, if you will. And that’s what these guys help me keep in perspective.”

The Special Olympics basketball season is in January and February, “and for me,” he said, “those months really seem to be on an even keel.”

Even as a boy, Cool said, “I always appreciated those people who would go out of their way to help less fortunate people, whether it’s somebody who’s down on his luck like a homeless guy on the street, or a handicapped person. I think it’s really ugly when people don’t do what they can for people who are less fortunate.

“So I would encourage anybody to give this a try. It’s something that’ll not only help the greater good, but enrich yourself at the same time.”

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