MT. KISCO, N.Y. – Coach Joe Bellini practiced with his team of Special Olympic basketball players at Leonard Park in Mt. Kisco on Thursday night as the sun began to dip below the horizon.
The group had one last chance to work together before it began its journey to Buffalo on Friday morning to play in the state games on Saturday. Approximately 1,500 athletes and 600 coaches will participate in the three-day event from Friday to Sunday.
Bellini works for North East Westchester Special Recreation, a community based non-profit organization that provides recreational services to children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. The organization will send a basketball team of 10 athletes, eight track and field athletes and three swimmers to Buffalo.
The coach and his team made it through local qualifying tournaments and the state selected them to represent the area at the games. Bellini has coached for North East Westchester Special Recreation for 19 years and his wife, Nancy, has also coached there for 25 years.
Bellini said the satisfaction he gets from coaching the team is worth every moment he puts into it.
“It just gives you better perspective,” Bellini said. “These guys, truly they don’t care if they win or lose. They’re just there for the fun, the event, the socialization.”
Every player on the team has a developmental disability of some kind. It is a co-ed team with players from Mt. Kisco, Pleasantville and Yorktown. The youngest player on the team is 19 and the oldest is a 52-year-old woman. Bellini said the older players may not play as many minutes, but their value off the court is incredible as they will set up events and help the other players work with one another.
Bellini said the players are “like sponges” in that they absorb as much about the game as they can and constantly want to improve and make it to higher levels of competition. And, sometimes, they do. The non-profit organization has sent a softball team to China and a floor hockey team to Japan to compete in international Special Olympics competitions.
The coach has had the chance to watch these players grow up in front of his eyes during his nearly 20 years on the job.
“It’s like a family, almost. Some of the kids that I have on the team I’ve had in the program since they were like six and now they’re 22, 23 years old,” Bellini said. “It’s great. They come in uncoordinated and by the time they reach their early 20s, suddenly they understand the game and they’re doing really well. It’s really a lot of fun.”