The competitive spirit: Special athletes bring basketball excitement to Minot

North Dakota Special Olympics brought the excitement of a state basketball tournament to Minot Friday and Saturday, along with hundreds of players, coaches, volunteers and fans.

“It’s a very exciting atmosphere from start to finish,” said Reid Huttunen, sports director for North Dakota Special Olympics, Grand Forks.

A snowstorm created stress and delays for teams on the road to Minot Friday. Still, players never lost their enthusiasm, stepping off the buses with cheers and arms raised in the air, Huttunen said.

“They knew they were in for a fun weekend,” he said.

The event started with a parade of athletes and a dance. It ended with an awards ceremony, recognizing each of the teams. There were five adult and two youth categories, which resulted in seven champions and gave all participants a chance to earn an award.

The youth division consisted of players younger than age 21. Participants must be at least 8 years old, but there is no upper age limit. The oldest participant this weekend was probably in his 60s, Huttunen said.

To be eligible to compete, teams must practice a minimum of eight weeks and participate in at least two regular season competitions. They participate in a district tournament, but all district participants advance to state, where they are assigned a competition category based on skill level.

This weekend’s event drew 425 athletes from 44 teams, along with an estimated 300 to 350 volunteers. Games were held at Minot State University Dome, Bishop Ryan High School, Quentin Burdick Job Corps Center and Roosevelt Elementary School.

“Anybody who hasn’t seen Special Olympics would be very surprised in a positive way with the ability level some of the athletes have,” Huttunen said. It’s not just the basketball abilities of some of the players but their knowledge of the game rules that is impressive, he said. And then there’s the team spirit.

“The competitive spirit is right there,” he said. “Competitive to win but great sportsmanship at the same time.”

Special Olympics is an example of what happens when athletes give their all and work together to achieve a goal, said Cindy Schopper of Valley City, who is in her 26th year of coaching for Special Olympics. Earlier this year, she took a snowboarding team to Korea for the world games.

Coaching the Valley City Lightning Bolts this weekend, Schopper said she enjoys her role.

“I think it’s getting to see the potential that’s in everybody,” she said. “It’s just seeing them grow as athletes but also seeing them grow as people. It’s what makes it all worth it.”