The gymnasium at Summit Academy Community School – Cincinnati captures a scene worthy of a silver screen. Picture nine basketball players moving in synchronized harmony, performing customized plays, swishing balls through baskets and winning, a lot.
The Rev. Thomas Hargis, a member of the school board, established the team to give students an opportunity to learn life skills and have fun in the process. For a team of players – all but one – who never played organized sports until now, their unexpected talent on the basketball court is the stuff champions are made of, Special Olympics Ohio state champs, in fact.
The team won the Special Olympics Ohio 2020 state basketball tournament held at Bowling Green State University February 21-23, defeating Paulding Pride 57-28.
“I like to start things that meet the gaps,” explains Hargis. A former collegiate basketball coach and player, Hargis is doing just that for students at the Cincinnati school, which specializes in serving youngsters with special education needs. Outside of school, Mr. Hargis serves as pastor at Calvary Hilltop UMC, Executive Director at Jubilee Project, which helps at-risk adults by providing them training in carpentry, electrical wiring and plumbing, skills they put to work to revitalize abandoned buildings in the area.
He says he sees his Summit Academy mission as one that teaches students how to be successful so they can thrive as adults. Comprised of players with ADHD, autism and other challenges, the Summit Eagles learn to take responsibility for themselves and each other.
“A lot of our kids struggle fitting in with a regular team environment so we change how our practices work,” says Hargis. He explains that the players make most of their twice-weekly practices, honing skills, developing sportsmanship and collaboration as a team, staying focused on the tasks at hand and looking out for each other.
“They’re responsible for helping each other out of spots. Sometimes you need somebody else to pull your parachute,” Hargis says.
Hargis, along with assistant coach Eden Hearons, an instructional aide at the school, take a methodical approach to guiding their exceptional team.
“Normal basketball plays are cyclical, multistep plays. Our kids are not going to be able to do them and we’re not setting them up for failure,” says Hargis. He describes a series of customized plays he developed that capitalize on players’ strengths and compensate for their shortcomings – so much so that their weaknesses usually go without notice. “We’ve worked out a high-level system, simple yet complicated, behind the scenes.”
The team’s journey to basketball stardom started with baby steps. For instance, the players were not allowed to shoot basketballs for their first month together.
“I wanted to see how they interacted, how they dribbled, passed at one another, how they learned,” Hargis explains.
Hargis says the athletes’ secrets to success lie in their willingness to accept coaching, their placement in positions where they can shine, and their good-natured poise on the court. There, they embrace nicknames like Waiter, Flipper and Trashman as terms of endearment. The players even follow a color-code system to recognize emotions like those of stability or frustration, to develop self-awareness.
“We’re teaching kids life skills and that just so happens to be on a court where a basketball is being dribbled,” Hargis explains. He adds that the school’s administrators, teachers and staff members play important roles in nurturing the students’ success on and off the court.
“This is about a community working to make sure these kids are getting everything they need in terms of support and wraparound, restorative practices,” Hargis says. He says the underlying goal is to give children who face challenges and who have experienced trauma – often without safety nets – a chance at a prosperous future.
“It’s about intervening and providing opportunities that teach children that they can be successful,” Hargis says.
Summit Academy Community School – Cincinnati is seeking donations for uniforms and equipment for next year’s team. Those interested should contact Khadine Kelly, community resource coordinator, at , 513-321-0561.