Special Olympics basketball team builds family bonds

When Carlos Gracia and Ryan Epidendio first met, they didn’t exactly get along. It was January 2011, and Gracia was starting as the new coach of the Special Olympics basketball team that Epidendio had played on for a decade, part of a core group of veteran athletes on the team. As Gracia remembers it, they weren’t exactly receptive to him at the start.

“I think they thought they could intimidate me,” Gracia said. “This team means a lot to them, and they’re very protective of that.”

But as the first season wound down and Gracia made it clear he was sticking around, the athletes warmed up to him. Epidendio, who Gracia says he initially “butted heads” with, listened to his new coach more, and the two now keep in touch even outside of the basketball season that runs from January through March each year.

Video produced by Felix Petermann, Nicky Sullivan and McKayla Taaffe.

“He’s not just a coach, or a friend,” Epidendio said about the bond they’ve forged. “He’s like a family member to me.”

Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and grew out of a summer camp for people with intellectual disabilities. Today, the program offers more than 4.5 million athletes with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to play sports and get exercise, no matter the severity of their disability. Epidendio and his teammates play for the Ravens, who practice at Gunn High School in Palo Alto and are one of eight Special Olympic basketball teams in Santa Clara County. There’s a wide variety of disabilities on the team, with some of the athletes serving almost as assistant coaches and others requiring one-on-one attention.

Epidendio, 38, is a huge Golden State Warriors fan, and often wears a blue Steph Curry jersey to practice. Much like Curry, he’s on the shorter side for a basketball player, standing just 5 feet 4 inches. Also like Curry, he keeps his hair short, although Epidendio’s is more of a light gray.

He has a learning disability, but when he got to high school, he wanted to follow in his older brothers’ footsteps and play sports. He tried out for the football and baseball teams, but didn’t make either.

“It was hard for me,” Epidendio said, his voice growing soft. “I wanted to make the cut.”

So, in 2000, Epidendio decided to pursue his passion in another way and joined the Ravens. Now in his 18th year with the team, Epidendio has become a leader, and is a team captain at the tournament every March. But it wasn’t always that way.

“When I first met him, he had a little bit of a temper,” said Gracia, 33. “He wasn’t so receptive to instruction and it was a challenge, but over the course of even that first season I saw a big change in him.”

At the start of his second season, Gracia went up to Epidendio and asked him to be a leader, and Epidendio took it to heart.

“He’s almost like a coach on the court,” Gracia said. “When we do the scrimmages and integrate the weaker players with the stronger players, I can trust him to make sure that the weaker player is getting the ball.”

Epidendio has also grown off the court. In September 2013, he married Lindsay Mibach; they first met in high school when he was a senior and she was a freshman. They got to know each other in large part through Special Olympics, and still play floor hockey together. Mibach is the goalie and she proudly refers to Epidendio as her “top defender.”

In the coming weeks, Epidendio also will start a new job, as a ticket taker for the Stanford University athletics department. He’s confident that his experience in Special Olympics helped him land the job, and he credits “the best coach I ever had” as a big factor in that achievement.

“He taught me a lot of stuff,” Epidendio said. “How to be a man, how to be a team player, and how to live life.”

Gracia is about 5 feet 8 inches tall and has short black hair, which at practice is usually hidden under a dark-blue backwards baseball cap with the words Palo Alto Fire Department on it in white and red letters. He has worked for the department as a firefighter-paramedic since 2011. A little over a year ago, he moved with his wife and two young children, and the family now lives about 25 minutes northeast of Sacramento. For the last two basketball seasons, that means that most Sundays he’s driving upwards of two hours to come to practice, and then immediately turning around and heading home when practice is over.

When Gracia started as head coach, he had no previous experience working with people with intellectual disabilities. Unlike many volunteers, he didn’t have a friend or family member with a disability, but there was something that stood out to him about what the organization could do.

“The one thing I never wanted was for someone to feel like they don’t belong,” he said. “That really matters to me.”

The players have taught Gracia a thing or two. While it would be easy to view the three-month season as weekly practices leading up to a closing tournament, the athletes find joy every week, Gracia noticed.

“This is their season,” he said. “They love these Sundays. It really kind of fills in the big picture for me, which I think is why I keep coming back. It puts a lot in perspective.”

At the end of each practice, the athletes divide into two teams and slip into black-and-white reversible jerseys. On the front of each jersey, large, yellow letters spell out Ravens. The athletes love wearing their jerseys, which is why they aren’t just saved for the tournament each March.

But it wasn’t always this way. Five or six years ago, in one of Gracia’s initial seasons as head coach, the team arrived at the tournament only to discover a mixup. They would be the only team without jerseys, forced to wear T-shirts with numbers crafted from blue painter’s tape. Gracia couldn’t bear to see his players’ disappointment, so that offseason he went out and bought the uniforms they wear today. The next year, he brought the uniforms to the first practice, and the athletes were thrilled to wear them. Since then, they’ve been a staple at each practice, and the team has taken the Ravens’ moniker to heart.

“You hear a lot of them talk about how they’re proud to be a Raven,” Gracia said. “It’s a long-term commitment for them.”

At the end of each practice, after the scrimmage, the athletes and volunteers walk to the middle of the court. After a few minutes of stretching, they huddle together, hands stretching to the center of the circle. At the end of this particular practice, it’s Epidendio’s voice that was heard first.

“Ravens on three!”

Then, all the voices joined, adults and teenagers, men and women, athletes and volunteers.



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