Out of Their League

Out of Their League

Gabriel Baird
Bee Staff Writer

The Elk Grove Wildcats dribbled in for layups before the game and threw up long shots.

Coach Stu Van Horn huddled his team. “Listen up,” he said.

He did not say the opponents looked rough, or that he didn’t want his players to get hurt. He announced that the Wildcats’ starting lineup would include the four coaches and 20-year-old Walter Washington of Elk Grove.

The Wildcats were, so to speak, out of their league. They are Special Olympics champions, but this was the Elk Grove Community Services District’s recreational men’s basketball league.

The Wildcats dominate Special Olympics basketball in Northern California, where more than 13,000 athletes are involved in the Special Olympics. But since the Special Olympics aren’t about winning, teams can’t compete the year after placing first.

They needed a new challenge.

“They would come to our competitions and knock the socks of everybody,” said J.R. Wheeler, Special Olympics sports manager for the northeastern portion of the state.

So Van Horn, or “Coach Stu” to his players, did something Wheeler said had never before been done in Northern California. The coach signed his team up for a regular men’s league.

With their coaches playing, too, the Wildcats won two games and, after three undefeated years of Special Olympics play, suffered their first two defeats.

That was OK. Van Horn considers losing instructive.

“You can use that as a springboard to working a little harder, being a better team player,” he said.

But no one likes to lose all the time. Their fifth game started. Van Horn was the tallest man on the court. He won the tipoff.

Washington got the ball but it was quickly stolen.

“Don’t worry about it,” Van Horn told him.

The coach made the game’s first basket, a free throw. The Wildcats were up 1-0. They wouldn’t keep this lead. But they managed to tie the score at 17 before the end of the first half.

The team huddled. “C’mon crew,” Van Horn said. “We had more turnovers than points.”

One of the things that makes him a good coach for the Special Olympians is that he doesn’t handle his players with kid gloves. He has high expectations. Like any coach, he’s not afraid to yell.

He started three coaches and two players in the second half, but pretty soon a new player entered the game: 26-year-old Anthony Peters, who lives in Greenhaven with another autistic man.

His mother, Elaine Scruggs of Fair Oaks, watched him. “He doesn’t know who he’s guarding,” Scruggs said affectionately. “He’ll play a few minutes and then he’ll come out. But it gets him involved, and I love that.”

With 4 minutes, 37 seconds left to play, the Wildcats were losing, 32-21.

Alex Perez watched from the bench. The 25-year-old is mentally disabled, has the use of only one hand and loves basketball. He insists on attending every practice and game.

“One time he was so sick,” said his father, Rodrigo Perez of Elk Grove, “I had to lie to him to keep him home.”

More agile players accidentally had knocked Perez down twice earlier in this men’s league season. Once he had landed on his bottom. The other time he had hit his back. The Wildcats now were up against their most aggressive opponents yet. Van Horn hesitantly sent him in.

Someone passed Perez the ball.

He dribbled.

The defense closed in.

Perez dribbled again and, using his good arm, threw up a shot.

The ball hit the backboard. It ricocheted against the rim.

It bounced up and … missed the basket.

Seconds later, he trotted off the court. Teammates congratulated him.

Van Horn said, “Good job.”

Perez basked in the attention.

There was 1:49 left to play. The Wildcats were down by nine, 34-25.

It looked like there was one Wildcat left who hadn’t played: Shayne Fischer, who has Down syndrome. Indirectly, he is responsible for Van Horn coaching this team.

His mom, Nettie Fischer of Elk Grove, wanted him to experience being a member of a team. She said, “The world is a team environment.”

She got him involved with the Special Olympics at the age of 8, but these were individual sports.

Then she saw that a co-worker had a tall husband. She asked if he coached basketball.

Van Horn had played at a California community college and then at a Montana university. He works as the associate commissioner of the California Community College Commission on Athletics. But he didn’t want to be a coach.

Having grown up the son of a coach, he recalled how it hurt the family when his dad’s team lost. He hadn’t wanted to subject his family to that roller coaster.

But the Special Olympics weren’t about winning, and the position didn’t pay. It was about playing the game. Van Horn accepted. That was in 1997.

The team gave Fischer No. 15. His mom sat across the gym from the Wildcats’ bench at the recent game. She said he had to be careful not to overexert himself or one of his medications could cause a painful reaction.

“Shayne,” Coach Stu called.

Coach Stu was putting him in.

The referee was waving him onto the court.

Fischer hustled. He was the shortest man out there. The others towered over him. Their longer legs took longer strides.

Someone passed the ball in.

No. 15 was playing in a game. Shayne Fischer was in. The Wildcats were down – hadn’t held a lead to speak of since Coach Stu had scored the game’s first basket on a free throw.

Fischer reacted to the ball being passed in.

Before he knew it, the play was over. Soon he was back at his place on the bench.

Time was running out … 25 … 21 … 15 …

“When he first started,” Fischer’s mom said, “if he didn’t win it was just tragic.”

… 12 … 9 …

Like it or not, it was about time to see how well the Wildcats’ experience had taught Fischer to lose.

… 3 … 2 … 1 …

The buzzer sounded. Fischer crossed the court to where his mom sat.

How was the game?

He said, “Very good.”

Other members of the Special Olympics championship team answered a reporter’s questions after this recent game, just like pros.

“We’ll just have to work harder,” Washington said. “We need a W.”