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SPECIAL BONDS

Challenger league scores with kids, parents

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SPECIAL BONDS

Kings coach Roger Goatcher gives out high-fives to players at the Golden West Community Gym.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin


POSTED February 19, 2014 1:02 a.m.

There is a special bond that exists between father and youngest son in the Goatcher household, and it almost always reaches a crescendo about this time of the year.

Basketball season.

Whether in the stands or in front of the television, Roger and Jacob are on equal footing when watching their beloved Sacramento Kings.

None of their differences – as pronounced as they may be – seem to exist. 

Not Roger’s age. 

Nor Jacob’s disability. 

“I love basketball,” Roger said, “and my son loves basketball.”

Roger is the Director of Special Education for the Manteca Unified School District, a role that has undoubtedly prepared him for the struggles Jacob has and will encounter in life.

The 12-year-old suffers from Prader-Willi Syndrome, a rare congenital disease rooted in obesity and developmental delays. Roger says Jacob is always hungry as a result of Prader-Willi, but his metabolism is only half that of a normal person.

With an insatiable appetite – it is not uncommon for someone with Prader-Willi to rummage food from the garbage – Jacob runs the risk of becoming obese and accruing a host of other issues related to rapid weight gain.

But all of that fades away when the Kings’ young but mercurial talent DeMarcus Cousins positions himself on the low block, or journeyman scorer Rudy Gay hoists up a 3-pointer.

The Goatcher boys are fans with a common rooting interest … as woeful as the Kings might be.

“They’re our favorite team,” Roger said without a hint of buyer’s remorse. “Bobby Jackson was our favorite player. I got (Jacob) a stuffed Bobby Jackson doll once. He’s always wearing a Kings jersey or Kings hat. He’s definitely a Kings fan.”

“Jacob is drawn to any team his dad like,” said Tracy Goatcher, Jacob’s mother. “But he loves talking about the Kings players and different things. If the game is on, he gets excited.”

Jacob has added a new piece to his basketball wardrobe, introducing a Kings jersey courtesy of the Manteca Parks and Recreation Department.

On Saturday, Parks and Rec, along with a handful of volunteers with the school district, celebrated the conclusion of the first-ever Challenger Basketball League, a seven-week campaign for the area’s severely handicapped children and young adults. 

“It was like a breath of fresh air,” Parks and Recreation Supervisor Toni Lundgren said.

The 23 players were split into two teams, and as they did all season, the Kings and Warriors locked horns in a game that featured balanced scoring attacks on both sides.

In the Challenger league, everyone gets to dribble the ball up the floor. Everyone gets to shoot. Everyone gets a chance to pass.

How loose and free is the play on Saturdays? “Sometimes we put five to a side,” Roger said, “sometimes we put six.”

No score is kept.

Instead, everyone is crowned a champion, from the players to the adult volunteers and coaches to the fans who filled the stands inside the elementary school gymnasium.

“You could tell from the first practice to the end of the season, they learned a ton,” said Roger, who served as one of the Kings coaches. “Kids that couldn’t dribble, but by the end they were dribbling and participating.

“One of the reasons we did the Challenger League wasn’t just about the sport but being around other kids. It brought them together in a team spirit. They were high-fiving each other and having a good time.

“It was like a perfect season. They didn’t lose a single game. They basically had all wins.”

The league featured hoops set at different heights to accommodate the players’ wide-ranging disabilities. Those in wheelchairs were allowed to shoot on 1-foot rims, while the young adults often shot on a 10-foot basket.

Lundgren even ordered basketballs with bells for the hearing impaired.

Roger says he won’t soon forget the look of sheer elation that followed each made field goal.

“Their eyes would light up and they’d just be ecstatic. ‘Look at me, I did this.’ It wasn’t just baskets. They enjoyed dribbling, jump-stopping and spinning. They loved the activity,” said Roger, whose oldest son, Chance, also shares an affinity for the game.

“It was a lot of fun.”

Roger and Lundgren collaborated on the Challenger Basketball League, ironing out the logistics of hosting a new seven-week season amid the city’s other established leagues, orchestrating registration, gym times, uniforms and coaches.

The real spark, though, was Jacob. After playing on teams and in leagues in Stockton and Modesto, the last of which simply went away, Jacob was suddenly without playing options.

“One of the things I’d seen, because I have a child with specials needs, we didn’t have a basketball league for kids with special needs,” Roger said.

Now, for the foreseeable future, it does. Lundgren said the league could grow to include other sports, such as soccer, baseball and softball.

“Basketball is just one of many sports, but my son loves basketball,” Roger said. “So it was a natural to bring in basketball.”

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