CENTERVILLE — He was starting to get that Jordan feeling.
“Mom, I gotta go out. They’re going to make a big announcement,” Joshua Sanders told his mom with a bit of urgency as he began to pull away toward the gymnasium door. “I gotta go for the announcement.”
When the coaches had called for a water break during basketball practice, 9-year-old Joshua had headed over to his mother, Sonya Saunders, who sat on a chair alongside other parents beyond the baseline of the court.
He had given her a loving hug, but soon was intent on joining his teammates — some giggling and chattering, others already rolling their shoulders and bobbing their heads to an imaginary beat — as they headed to the water fountain.
Never has a water break been met with more enthusiasm, more anticipation than it has at Polar Bears practice on Saturday mornings at Far Hills Community Church.
That’s because it’s not about break time — it’s the prelude to “Show Time!”
As the kids headed out the door, Tim Meyer, one of the volunteer coaches, flipped on the music. Out on the gym floor, fellow coach Eric Hilgeford picked up a microphone and instantly turned into one of those bombastic ring announcers you find at a heavyweight title fight.
Meanwhile, Sonya and the other parents, family members, coaches and teenage helpers began to crowd the sidelines until the whole court was framed with familiar faces.
By now the kids had lined up in the hallway just beyond the door. That’s when 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready For This” began to fill the gym just as it does UD Arena for Dayton Flyers games.
And once Hannah Foister, a fifth-grade helper from Temple Christian who serves as Saturday morning cheerleader, came running out with two friends, all of them shaking pompoms, Eric went to work:
“Ladies and gentlemen ... introducing the 2012 Polar Bears ... first up, No. 4, my little sweetheart, Megan ... run like the wind, Megan.”
And with that 11-year-old Megan Lee pushed her glasses up her nose, raised her arms to the heavens, came running out and headed straight for the line of parents and friends, high-fiving every outstretched hand she passed.
One by one her teammates followed, some busting dance moves first, others motioning to the cheering crowd to crank up the roar, all laughing as they ran into the heady setting and joined the kids who preceded them in what had become a center-court disco.
They say the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, but the Polar Bears introductions are the most joyous five minutes you’ll find anywhere.
Polar Bears basketball is for special needs children. Most have Down syndrome, a few are autistic and almost all seem to have the showman gene when the introductions begin.
“I just live for this,” beamed Hilgeford, who is a commercial real-estate agent. “I’m blessed to see their faces light up when they hear their name and come running out. For an instant, they feel like Michael Jordan.”
And should any youngster get momentary stage fright, there are volunteers such as Marty Malloy, a Dayton attorney, who on this day wore a T-shirt that said “Never, Never Quit” as he put an arm around Ben Grebner and made the high-five trot with him.
The session usually wraps up with an animated, center-court rendition of the Village People’s “YMCA,” but not last Saturday on the eve of the Super Bowl.
“Today, we have a special treat,” Hilgeford said. “The Super Bowl may have Madonna, but we have Morgan.”
That’s when one of the older Bears, Morgan Stoddard — a small 22-year-old whose long dark locks were held back by a sparkly, rhinestone-studded hair band — took the microphone, blinked a few times and then sang her rendition of “God Bless America.”
When she began to falter, Adam Flowers, a beefy 16-year-old Centerville High School sophomore, ambled over and made it a duet. Soon the rest of the Bears had crowded in, too, and they ended the song with a full-throated, nearly-on-key chorus.
‘A sense of pride’
Seven years ago Chris Connor was sitting next to Meyer at an Alter High basketball game. Both had sons playing for the Knights.
Chris also had 11-year-old Colin, whose Down syndrome is eclipsed by his basketball jones and his ease in front of a crowd.
“Colin used to go out on the court before Alter games and at halftime and shoot around, and he’d always make quite a few,” Chris remembered. “One day Tim leaned over and said, ‘If you ever want to get a team together for him, I’d be willing to coach it.’ ”
Meyer, who has a sister with Down syndrome, laughed as he remembered her response: “Two weeks later she had a team of eight kids and a place to practice.”
After a couple of weeks of dribbling and passing, the kids were split into two teams for a game that soon defined Polar Bear basketball.
“I remember a kid on the blue team made a basket, and a kid on the white team gave him a big high-five,” Meyer said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Hey, he’s not on your team,’ and the kid says, ‘I don’t care, Coach. That was a good shot.’ And that’s what this is all about.”
There are now 46 children from across the Miami Valley taking part in the two-month-long Polar Bear season, and there’s a waiting list to join.
“Other kids at school talk about being on teams, and so now my son can say he’s on a team, too. He’s a Polar Bear,” said Amy Allen, the principal of John F. Kennedy Elementary whose 8-year-old son Davis is a first-grader at her school. “For him, there’s just such a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
The wide spectrum of volunteer coaches includes everybody from Judge Tim Woods of the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court to several teenagers — especially athletes — from Bellbrook and Alter high schools.
“One Saturday morning, a bus pulls up, and the basketball team from Bellbrook gets out,” Hilgeford said. “The team had lost a game the night before, and the players were all feeling ‘woe is us.’ So the coach brought them here to show them what it means to pick yourself up when something happens.
“By the time they left I think they had learned something.”
One day at a time
Every Saturday morning during basketball season the first thing Megan Lee does when she wakes up is call family members to see if they are coming to Polar Bear practice.
“And if they are not, they better have a good reason,” Louann Lee, Megan’s mom, said with a laugh.
The most touching conversation, though, is reserved for her uncle, Todd Dickensheets, who lives with Louann’s parents. He’s 40 and wheelchair-bound, unable to walk or talk since a bout with spinal meningitis when he was 3 weeks old.
“She calls Uncle Todd every morning before school and again afterward and always on Saturdays,” said Louann. “She wants to know if he’s going to be there. What he had for breakfast. If he’s behaving.
“He just giggles when he hears her voice. He can’t talk, but Megan said she does the talking for him.”
Mike, Megan’s dad, nodded: “She knows there’s something special about Uncle Todd, and she’s always been very protective of him. She just loves her Uncle Todd.”
At Polar Bears practices, Megan, a fifth-grader at Bell Creek Intermediate School, often comes over to Todd after she makes a basket and gives him a hug or a kiss. During introductions, she sometimes grabs his wheelchair and dances onto the court with him.
“We knew before Megan was born that she had Down syndrome,” said Louann. “We also knew that there was a heart defect and she’d need open heart surgery right away. At first, I remember being overwhelmed. I had grown up with my brother being physically handicapped, and I thought, ‘Good Lord, can I do this?’ But over the years I’ve remembered the advice my parents gave Mike and me: ‘Just take one day at a time.’
“Most importantly we include Megan in every activity we do, everything her older brother and sister do. That’s just what my folks did with Todd.
“And the Polar Bears really have been a help. Our life with three kids can be very chaotic at times. But when you get here — and you see the other families and you watch your kids out there — you just get a sense that everything is going to be OK. We can handle this.”
Nothing to pity
For those who ever have looked at parents with Down syndrome children and offered a patronizing “Oh that’s too bad,” Gary Westfall — who had just watched his 15-year-old son Nathan make two baskets in a row during an intrasquad game, the last of which was punctuated by a celebratory high-five between father and son — had one thing to say:
“Too bad? It’s not too bad whatsoever. These kids really are special. Nathan brings stuff out of me that I’d probably never do on my own. He brings out the basics in life, and that’s what you should care about.”
Earlier that point was made perfectly clear when Judge Wood — trying to get the smaller Bears to do some running — came chugging down the court, Pied Piper-like, pretending he was a “choo choo train.” Behind him was a string of kids all jogging and tooting like a train.
“I don’t know that I have a better time during the week as I do working with these kids and seeing the happiness on their faces,” said Wood, who brings his own teenage children along to experience the same thing.
As for the Polar Bear kids, they truly embrace their basketball moments each Saturday.
“When they made a basket, you’d think they just hit a 3-pointer to win the NCAA championship,” Mike said. “It’s that big to them.”
After the season, the Polar Bears have an awards banquet that includes pizza, trophies and a highlight film set to music that Hilgeford puts together each year so “they can look at it all summer and still feel like a champion.”
But while many are channeling their inner Jordan, Morgan Stoddard has her sights set on another stage.
“I want to be on ‘American Idol,’ ” she said. “I’m pretty good. I sing for my grandpa, and he likes it.”
So what else besides “God Bless America” can she do?
She thought for several seconds and then said: “Well ... Backstreet Boys ... and ... aaaah ... ‘Natural Woman.’ ”
With a little prompting, she finally offered up a nearly whispered sampler of the Aretha Franklin hit: “Cause you make me feel ... like a na-tur-al woman.”
And once again, being a Polar Bear, whether you’re feeling like Jordan or Aretha, truly meant Show Time.