UNION CITY -- A spunky basketball team of Bay Area youngsters is using a time-tested formula for success, combining a team-first spirit with hard work and developing on-court skills to earn a special trip to a well-known tournament on the East Coast.
The city-sponsored Union City Hoopas has a speedy point guard controlling the tempo, tall frontcourt players grabbing rebounds, and accurate passers unselfishly feeding the ball to their best shooters.
The combination, along with their positive attitude, helps the co-ed teammates play so well that spectators sometimes overlook their biggest obstacle: Each is a special-needs student with physical and developmental disabilities.
Their challenges did not stop the Hoopas from earning wins against squads with similar abilities at a Pleasanton tournament last year, qualifying them for the Special Olympics USA Games from June 14 to 21 in New Jersey.
"I'm so excited and happy," said Hoopas team member Kristin O'Rourke, of Fremont. "We'll go, be athletic, show sportsmanship and have fun."
She clearly has been listening to her head coach, Bob Fine, who says that having fun is the team's most important rule. Fine credits coach Don Frazier for recruiting him in 2005 to lead one of Union City's two special-needs squads. Fine and his wife Karla had been looking for similar activities for their son Andy, now a Hoopas player. Coaching has become one of Fine's passions.
"When I see a smile on (the players') faces because they know they've done a good job, God, it doesn't get any better than that," he said. "They make me a better person."
The nine-member squad is sponsored by Union City Leisure Services, a city-run division whose programs include sports teams for people with special needs.
"The developmentally disabled have a right to as many programs as possible, like everybody else," said Union City Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci. "We're very proud that we're able to offer (special needs athletics) as one component of that program."
The Hoopas roster includes Joseph Carter of Castro Valley; Anthony McIntyre of Sunnyvale; Jesus DeLeon and Zachary Umar-Durr, both of Fremont; and Michelle Lee, Pedro Rodriguez and Sebastian Torres, each of Union City. They range in age from 13 to 26.
Carter, the team's youngest and smallest player, might best exhibit its plucky spirit. He has erased concerns coaches once had about his size and now is the team's energetic spark plug. "Joseph has grown so much in the past two years," said Fine, a Fremont resident. "He now has more strength and coordination and he is definitely our point guard."
Fine tries to figure out what makes each player tick, but coddling them helps no one, he said. "Many would say you need to back off and treat them differently, but what I've learned is that that's so unfair to them," he said. "You need to tap into their potential and make them work, as you would with any team. We're not going to assume they're not capable of doing more."
The team practices Saturdays training for their trip to the Special Olympics USA Games five months from now. Winning those games would be nice, said Fine, but he wants most for his players to savor the experience.
"They put in the hard work and now it's time to enjoy the fruits of their labor," he said. "They deserve to feel as special as any athlete competing in the Olympic Games would feel."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.