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Special Olympics Hoops Eyes States

By Ellen Oliver

Coach Brendan Aylward (holding the ball) readies the players for a team
scrimmage tip-off.
Ellen Oliver

At the start of every sports season, teams gather, coining inspirational mottos and identifying goals. For 11 local basketball players with special needs, the goal is the same one reiterated throughout locker rooms all over the country: “Make States.” For this team, that means the Massachusetts Special Olympics Winter games, held in early 2013.
Coach Brendan Aylward and Bolton’s Bob Moalli, founder of the Nashoba Unified Sports Program, also have their own goal. “Bob and I are working towards making this team the first group to compete in the SOMA winter games that has arisen from the Nashoba Unified Program,” said Aylward. He added that Moalli, who has been involved with Special Olympic affiliated programs for some time, has been instrumental in providing guidance for Aylward (as well as doing all the paperwork for the team), leaving the coaching and organizing to Brendan.
Many of the athletes have participated in Unified Sports programs for soccer, basketball, and baseball, where individual skills are taught and the athletes with special needs are paired with helpers. However, Aylward saw that some players were interested in upping their game and competing without assistance.  “These programs are fantastic, but some of the kids are capable of competing at a higher level,” he explained. “The team has been incredible. Although we are there to play basketball, it is most important that the kids build friendships with the other athletes on the team. It is clear that that has happened.”
One of the players, Nick Giovinazzo, who claims “basketball is his life,” said he’s enjoying the team. “Brendan is a great coach and I have great teammates. We’re doing the best job we can do,” he said.
Working from the foundation of skills developed at the Nashoba Unified basketball program, the players are learning team play and game strategy. “If you were to watch one of our first scrimmages in June, you probably wouldn’t see any passing or defense. Now, the kids share the ball and we’ve gotten to the point where we look like a team; it has been amazing to watch,” said the coach.

Nick Giovinazzo shows his shooting pose at basketball practice.
Ellen Oliver

Nick acknowledged that he knew a lot about basketball prior to joining the team, but he admitted the competitive environment is a change. “It’s kind of different, but we’re getting used to it,” he said.
The team started practicing in June, meeting twice per week throughout the summer and transitioning to Saturday afternoons for the fall. The goal of competing at the State level requires commitment from the players, with some pulled locally from Stow, Bolton and Lancaster, but others travelling from Shrewsbury, Framingham, Clinton and Sudbury.
Aylward, a sophomore at Providence College, commutes home from school every weekend to coach the team. “Although I’ve put a lot of work into this program, without the parents bringing their children to play every Saturday, it obviously wouldn’t be possible,” said Aylward. “Some even drive 30 minutes to practice for an hour and a half.” Debbie Giovinazzo, Nick’s mother, thinks the credit for the program’s success goes elsewhere.  “I have to throw it back to Brendan,” she said. “He’s so dedicated to these kids. He’s really good at getting new things going for these kids.”
For Aylward, a high school injury unexpectedly ignited a passion when he was given an opportunity to help with a new program. “Sophomore year I broke my wrist and couldn’t play basketball, so Bob Moalli reached out to me to help with the first year of Nashoba Unified Basketball,”  he explained.
Aylward began taking on more responsibility with the unified sports programs, as well as rising to president of Nashoba’s Best Buddies program by his senior year. “When most of my classmates are trying to figure out what they want to study in college, I’m fortunate enough to know my goals. I can thank Bob for that,” said Aylward. Aylward also credits his parents for encouraging him to volunteer with Unified Sports and for raising him in a neighborhood where he spent every day playing sports with his best friends.
When asked why he drives home to Stow from Providence every weekend to coach this team, Aylward says his commitment is best understood in person. “You have to watch one of our practices and see the reactions from the kids to really understand. It seems that everyone wants something out of you, but all my athletes want is for you to be there for them. It’s the least I can do.” Aylward added, “I’ve always played on sports teams, which is a privilege not always afforded these kids. I wanted to give them that opportunity.”
Fortunately, Aylward isn’t doing it alone. James Ryan, who graduated from Bryant University and Rob Manley, a Penn State alum, help to keep the athletes on task during practice. After running through drills, each practice ends with a 30 minute scrimmage.
Debbie Giovinazzo said the community is lucky to have programs and opportunities for the special athletes and people interested in helping out. “People have been so great opening their hearts to push these kids forward. It’s a whole new world for them,” she said. “It’s not like t everywhere. We’re very fortunate.”