By Michèle De Meglio
A local athletic program is helping handicapped and developmentally disabled Brooklynites gain the self-confidence they need to succeed. Open to children and adults, the St. Mark Sports Association’s Challenger Basketball program has been a favorite of residents with special needs since it’s inception seven years ago. “He looks forward to it every Sunday morning,” Barry Resnick said of his 25-year-old son Jeffrey, who has played in the weekly games at St. Mark School in Sheepshead Bay since the program was created. “It gives them something to do,” explained Jimmy Bahan, Sr., Challenger Basketball coach and athletic director for the St. Mark Sports Association. “They love the competition. As soon as they walk into that gym, they’re running over and looking for the basketball.” Eighteen-year-old Ralph Castellano, who has Down syndrome, said he “likes to shoot.” The program was actually created with Castellano, a Sheepshead Bay resident, in mind. After Castellano grew tired of just watching the basketball games in St. Mark’s gymnasium, he asked Bahan to implement a program to suit his needs. Bahan and Castellano’s father, Joe, happily obliged and Challenger Basketball was born. The program now boasts more than 50 players, many of whom signed up for the opportunity to get some exercise. Born with congenital heart disease, Castellano needed to find a way to develop his strength and keep fit. Challenger Basketball was the perfect solution. “In the beginning, he could barely even lift a small basketball. Now he is an excellent three-point shooter. He has a hook shot,” said his mother, Terri. Castellano, like many other Challenger participants, has also gained self-confidence through the program. “You can see the difference in these kids,” said Resnick, who coaches Challenger Basketball games. “That’s the one constant I hear from parents – they’re more outgoing, they’re more confident.” “Every time they accomplish something, whether it’s a simple thing like dribbling a basketball…[or] when they make a successful pass,” he continued, “I can’t explain to you what that does to a kid’s confidence.” For players, participating in weekly games “is an accomplishment. It’s an accomplishment in starting and finishing a task, in working together, [and] team work – all of these things are life lessons that benefit them in the long run,” Resnick said. “To see my son playing in a structured situation is phenomenal for me because I always wanted Ralph to be involved in something from start to finish where he’s listening to the rules and playing by the rules,” said Terri. The program is also a great way to bring families together. Parents and siblings of players regularly attend games and often take on managerial and administrative positions by acting as coaches and referees. “I’m in charge of giving the uniforms to the kids,” said Terri. “My sons and husband coach. They keep score, they do the clock. It’s wonderful.” Since most of the players are unable to travel to the games on their own, this tight family aspect is what has allowed the Challenger program to remain operational. “If the parents or the family don’t enable it then it’s not going to happen so we have more parent involvement in our program than most athletic programs,” Resnick said. The close atmosphere is also responsible for keeping the coaches of the Challenger Basketball games coming back to the court every week. “I’ve coached ‘normal’ kids and I don’t get out of it what I get from these kids,” Resnick said. “It’s the one thing in my life beyond anything that I am most proud of.” The St. Mark Sports Association is still accepting participants for this season’s Challenger Basketball program (games are played from October to March). The program requires a $60 registration fee, which covers the cost of uniforms and end-of-season trophies awarded to all players. Games are played at St. Mark School, located at Avenue Z and East 18th Street. For additional information about Challenger Basketball, contact the St. Mark Sports Association at 718-769-5374 or log onto www.stmarksports.org.