Kristina Brown brings the ball up the court during a scrimmage at the I Did You Can Basketball Camp on Saturday morning at Juneau-Douglas High School. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

Kristina Brown brings the ball up the court during a scrimmage at the I Did You Can Basketball Camp on Saturday morning at Juneau-Douglas High School. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

Basketball camp fosters inclusivity

Retired NBA coach uses basketball drills to teach skills to intellectually disabled

The dribbling drill seems a bit odd at first: a ballhandler dribbling the length of the court while brightly-colored foam noodles (like those found in a pool) are waved in his or her path from either side. The campers at the I Did You Can Basketball Camp on Saturday morning at the Juneau-Douglas High School Gym make it safely to the end without losing the ball, despite getting whacked in the knees and arms.

Greg Brittenham directed the two-day camp for anyone who may not feel comfortable at a conventional camp, particularly individuals with intellectual disabilities. The 59-year-old teaches part-time in Haines but spent most of his career working for the New York Knicks as a strength and conditioning coach. While still on the Knicks’ staff, Brittenham began hosting basketball camps in villages on the North Slope. His outreach spread to Southeast Alaska when he and a friend, “fell in love with Haines and this whole Southeast area.”

“I got disillusioned with the Knicks (so we thought) let’s go up there and start a little foundation where we go into the little villages of Southeast and do kind of what we were doing on the Slope,” Brittenham said. “And that’s to get kids into the gym and then you can address the broader issues of gender equity and leadership and substance abuse and that kind of thing but you do it through basketball.

“That kind of morphed into a special needs focus and we started doing one of those here.”

The noodles drill and every drill conducted Saturday and Sunday morning serve a two-fold purpose.

“It goes into becoming a better athlete but it also helps this population with general activity and general movement skills,” Brittenham said.

Mike Story watched as his 23-year-old son, Ryan, successfully navigated the jungle of noodles and laid the ball into the basket. Story said it’s the first year he’s brought his son, who has autism, to the event, and it didn’t take much convincing to do so.

“He played mainstream parks and rec until he was 17, so (there’s) probably some memories from that,” he said. “But also when he does attend things with people with disabilities, he seems more open to it and maybe because it’s more accepting. Everybody here probably has a disability, so it’s not like he’s trying to fit in.”

Juneau-Douglas special educator Janette Gagnon said there is no one intellectual disability that is more prevalent than others at the camp.

“It’s just kids that don’t feel like they would fit in in a traditional camp or it’s too crowded or the skill level is too high,” she said. “This is much better for them because it’s adapted and a smaller group.”

The camp is entirely volunteer-driven and Gagnon tries to bring in new campers each year. JDHS boys basketball coach Robert Casperson brings his players to the event to lend a hand, which Gagnon said builds a more inclusive high school community.

“I see them in the halls saying hi to everybody that was here at camp,” Gagnon said. “So there’s more inclusion and more interaction in the halls of the school but also in the community.”

The camp isn’t just limited to those still in school.

Ryan Carpenter, 36, took a breather on the sideline as the camp’s festivities wound down for the day. He said it’s his second year at the camp. Carpenter recently joined the Juneau Rebounders, a Special Olympics basketball team that competes every June at the Summer Games in Anchorage.

“It’s training me,” Carpenter said. “I’ll hopefully get better soon.”

A handful of Carpenter’s teammates also attended the camp, including Kristina Brown, 30, and Leroy George, 46. The two were noticeably sweaty as they made their way out of the gym after two hours of running, jumping, dribbling and shooting.

“It’s fun,” Brown said. “It gets me a workout and my skills a little better for basketball so I can be better when I play basketball in Anchorage again.”

George summed up the morning as, “people getting along and playing basketball.”

• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.

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