For almost as long as I can remember, Larry Bird was my favorite basketball player.
I loved the way he talked trash, and I loved the way he came through in the clutch.
The story of him walking into the locker room at the NBA 3-point contest and telling the other contestants that they were competing for second place is legendary. Then, he raised his arm with the No. 1 finger as he let go of his last ball, which, of course, swished to win the title. (Click here for the podcast version of this column.)
During the mid 1980s, I lived and died with the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird. While I paid attention during Michael Jordan’s run of six titles with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, I never really cared about the NBA after Bird retired.
It just wasn’t fun anymore.
Well, move over Larry. I have a new favorite basketball player.
His name is Kip, and he plays for the Tri-County Wolves, a Special Olympics basketball team based out of Helena.
Kip is awesome. There is just no other way to put it.
He is a shooting specialist who, like me, has no interest in playing defense or rebounding. Well, unless the ball bounces right to him.
I was told Kip, a shorter player with Down Syndrome, is about 30 years old. He wears a baseball hat with a headband around it when he plays, too, so Kip looks good.
He stands in the same spot the entire time he is on the floor. He always spots up for a shot just outside the block, looking for an 8-foot jumper.
Whether his team was going east or west at the new East Middle School gym, Kip always stood on the south side of the basket, nearest the team benches, during the Special Olympics State Games Basketball Tournament in Butte.
He would stand there until someone passed the ball directly to him, or, better yet, handed him the ball. Then, Kip would knock down the shot like clockwork.
During the tournament, Kip never paid attention to the other end of the floor. He kept laser focus on his rim.
No, he isn’t cherry picking like you see some lazy guys do during the Knights of Columbus basketball league. He isn’t just looking for the easy pass and layup.
The one time a teammate got a rebound and fired a baseball pass to Kip, my new favorite player just stared at the rim as the ball slowly bounced right past him out of bounds.
Like other stars, Kip is also his own man who does his own thing.
When a woman volunteering to work the score book informed the Wolves’ coach that “No. 13 has not been in the game yet,” late in the first half, the coach replied, “I know. He’s refusing.”
Butte hosted the tournament Nov. 10-12 in seven gymnasiums around town.
I volunteered to referee, and I worked 10 games at East. I had three games with Kip’s team.
I also got to work a few games with the Butte Sheltered Workshop team, and some of the players made my day by celebrating the fact that I was their referee.
The fact that I think I only called three fouls in 10 games probably had something to do with that.
During the tournament, I received tons of high fives and fist bumps from the players. I even got a couple of hugs.
Kip led the tournament in giving me a fist bump. He also kept showing me his hand, which had a basketball sticker or temporary tattoo for the tournament.
I lost count of how many players who came up and thanked me, my fellow referees and the men and women working the scorer’s table during the two days of games.
You just do not see that in other basketball games because other basketball games do not stack up to the Special Olympics and the Special Olympians.
The best thing they did when creating the Special Olympics more than a half a century ago was name it the Special Olympics.
The world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities truly is special. There is no other way to describe it.
There is also no other way to describe the Special Olympians. They can make your heart melt with a simple smile.
I have always said that if Special Olympians ran the world, there would be no such thing as war. Everyone would love each other because the Special Olympians represent everything that is good about humanity. They are innocent to the core.
I refereed four games involving the Hornets from Great Falls.
Late in the first half of one game, the players realized that they were vastly better than the other team, even if the score was still close.
So, the players started getting defensive rebounds, and then handing the ball back to their opponents so they could shoot. On one possession, they let their opponents shoot the ball at least five times before they made a shot.
Can you imagine a team doing that in a high school game?
Several years back, the Montana High School Association implemented a 40-point “mercy rule.” That means that the clock does not stop once a team gets a lead of 40 points.
Too many teams were running the score up on their opponents.
That is something that does not happen in the Special Olympics. At least it does not happen on purpose.
When the tournament was here three years ago, I refereed and got to work with real officials like Mike Anderson, Dara (Shea) McGurk and Traci Thomas. This year, I got to work with Quinn Dennehy, Amanda Krieg, Jon Kinzle and my cousin Mike “Skinny” Foley.
Skinny let me borrow a referee shirt with a Montana Officials Association patch on it. It felt like stolen valor until Skinny called a three-shot technical in one game. That’s right, a three-shot technical.
We weren’t even in Anaconda.
The technical foul was called on no one in particular. Skinny was just making sure a player on the Butte team got a chance to shoot. The score was not close, so it did not matter.
Actually, the Olympians would not have cared if it was.
After the player missed the first two shots — from way inside the free throw line — Skinny blew his whistle and said, ‘That’s a three-shot technical.”
The player made the third shot, and celebrated like he was the hero of the game.
Later, Mike said he was ready to make it a four-shot technical if he had to. He probably would have gone to 30.
Nobody in the gym would have complained, either.
That is what the Special Olympics are all about. It is sportsmanship at its finest.
Players in every sport and at every level could learn something from these Special Olympians.
The Special Olympic State Games Basketball Tournament will move to Helena for the next three years. It will not be back in the Mining City until 2026.
When the tournament comes back to town, there is no way I will miss it. You can mark me down right now as a volunteer referee.
I really hope I get to officiate a Tri-County Wolves game or two.
Actually, what the heck? Maybe I will head to Helena next year to work some games.
Seeing my new favorite player Kip in action is definitely worth the drive.
— For more stories and podcasts from Bill Foley, go to ButteCast.com. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Contact Bill at email@example.com.
Bill, Love the article! Kip is our son. You captured his funny, quirky, stubborn spirit perfectly! Thank you for the great article and for your time referreeing at the State Games!