By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
Winning's not always the point. Sometimes just playing the game is enough.
That's why the Buddy Ball games at First Baptist Church in Belton always end in a tie.
'The score doesn't matter,' said Ricky O'Banon of Belton, program coordinator. 'It's about everyone getting equal court time.'
That's important to the Buddy Ball players, children from 5 to 18 with special needs and disabilities.
The group's first practice was July 6, and everyone was having a blast. A smile was on everyone's face, and cheers could be heard from every corner of the FBC gym.
'Fun. Fun. Basketball is fun,' said Bobby Ayer, one of the players. 'My favorite is to throw, count and bounce.'
The enthusiastic Ayer also likes Buddy Ball because he gets to 'talk to a hundred friends.'
Parents enjoy Buddy Ball for the same reasons. 'My daughter (14-year-old Holli) can come here and play like anybody else,' said Heidi Dallman of Killeen. 'She makes five baskets in a row and everyone applauds and encourages. It makes me proud to see her succeed and be with people her age.'
Lynn Springfield of Granger knows the feeling well. His 11-year-old son Noah has Down Syndrome, and he's a star at Buddy Ball.
'It tickles the heck out of me to see him out on the court,' Springfield said. 'It's just like any other parent watching their kid play. My boy's good at it, and he's entertainer of the crowd. He likes to dance and talk to folks. He's a one-man act.'
Noah's little sister, 5-year-old Gracie, said 'he's real good and tries real hard.'
In Buddy Ball, the special needs players are divided into groups of four or six and are paired with volunteer students who help them aim for the hoop and shoot.
'It's cool being a buddy,' said Joshua Reynolds, 14, of Belton. 'You get to help out, and there's nothing better to see than when someone gets glad because they made a basket.'
Each group also comes with two adult volunteers, one to coach and one to cheer.
'You don't see disabilities here,' said Anita Baez of Temple, second-year adult volunteer. 'You see their abilities and what they can accomplish. There's excitement and happiness in every corner of the room, and I love being a part of it.'
The Buddies play their own version of basketball.
'There's no blocking or guarding or passing,' said Tracy O'Banon of Belton, co-coordinator. 'Each player takes a turn at the hoop to see how many baskets they can make in a given amount of time. At the end of their turn, they go to the back of the line.'
But the kids aren't bored as they wait between turns. They're visiting with one another or tossing the ball back and forth. Sometimes they come up with a spur-of-the-moment cheer and dance, and sometimes they decide they want to race each other to the other end of the gym.
'Everybody claps and says my name. I like that,' said Caitlin Martin, 15-year-old special needs student from Belton. 'And then I get to run and throw.'
Her mother, Kathleen, said Buddy Ball is more than fun and giggles.
'It helps the regular kids understand more about kids with special needs,' Mrs. Martin said. 'They learn that special kids needs have a sense of humor and are fun to talk to just like normal kids. This program is just as much about learning as it is recreation.'
Another mom, Susie Marek of Salado, agreed.
'The kids are encouraged to learn a memory verse,' Mrs. Marek said. 'After the first practice, they're given a magnet in the shape of a basketball with a Bible verse on it, and when the come back for the game, they're asked to repeat it.'
Her 14-year-old son Logan is autistic, and he loves Buddy Ball, except he calls it 'basketball church.'
Buddy Ball also caters to parents.
'We divide into groups and there's a speaker who has been affected by a special needs person,' Mrs. Marek said. 'Then there's a time for testimony and prayer requests. It's uplifting and encouraging to know you're not alone.'
This year is the third season for the Buddy Ball games at First Baptist Church of Belton, and the two remaining games are set for 10:30 a.m. July 25, Aug. 1 and Aug. 8.
For next year's games, registration will start in late May and continue through June. All special needs students in grades K-12 are welcome to participate. Parents should be prepared to alert the coordinators of any special concerns requiring medication or safety.
'It doesn't matter where you live or what school the child is in,' Mrs. O'banon said. 'As long as you can drive here, you are welcome.'
The cost to participate is $15 per student. The fee is usually paid at registration, and in return, the student receives a jersey and window decal.
'Scholarships are available for those who need them,' Mrs. O'Banon said.
Details about Buddy Ball are available from the O'Banons at 939-8636, FBC-Belton at 939-0705.
'It is a great privilege for the church to be able to serve the community in this way,' said Andy Davis, pastor at FBC-Belton.