February 7, 2008
Special-needs athletes score in basketball program
"What happens next Coach Jeff?" Tali asked. She stood in her long skirt and T-shirt in the middle of the basketball court.
"Right now nothing," Jeff Liss answered. "But we'll figure something out just for you, Tali," he added in a cheerful tone.
Tali Hill, 17, has been asking this question for several weeks now, knowing that the weekly basketball practices she looks forward to more than anything else will soon be coming to an end.
Tali, a vibrant girl, was born with cerebral palsy, which has significantly impaired her motor skills as well as her ability to hear and speak. She also has frequent seizures and is accompanied by a personal assistant at all times.
Yet despite these challenges, she stands out as one of the most enthusiastic participants in Special Macabees, a free basketball program for Jewish special-needs athletes that met every Sunday evening from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Westside Jewish Community Center.
The athletes range in age from 10 to 60, and their disabilities include autism, Down syndrome and seizures. They play in separate groups of males and females, and based on their abilities -- which vary greatly -- they work with coaches on basketball basics, such as dribbling, passing and shooting. Occasionally, the more skilled players get a game going.
"I have a kid who can dunk," said Liss, who is founder as well as the heart and soul of Special Macabees.
Some athletes initially have trouble participating at all. "Joseph, who is now a star athlete and can shoot really well, couldn't even throw the ball two years ago," Liss said, pointing to a young man in a yarmulke. "He just kept repeating the same phrase, 'I want to go to 7-11. I want to go to 7-11.'"
Liss had been volunteering with Special Olympics as a basketball and baseball coach for 15 years when he started Special Macabees in 2005, after realizing that observant Jewish athletes cannot participate in the better-established program because many of the practices and games are on Saturdays. Liss became observant more than a decade ago and had to scale back his own involvement in Special Olympics because he keeps Shabbat. He wanted to start a sports program in which every Jew could participate.
Two years ago, Liss started basketball practices with a handful of developmentally challenged boys and men. He chose basketball because it is easy to teach, requires little equipment and can be played with any number of athletes. Last year, due to scheduling conflicts at the JCC's indoor gym, the program did not come together.
This year, however, Liss expanded Special Macabees to include women. He put up fliers at synagogues, JCCs, coffee houses and kosher restaurants. He advertised in newsletters and approached families to invite them to participate.
Practices began on Oct. 21 and were scheduled to continue for 10 weeks. Some Sundays, eight athletes showed up. At other times, the gym was near capacity with more than 30 excited players.
"If we have one person show up, it's worth it," Liss said.
The turnout was so great, thanks to the support from other Jewish organizations, such as Etta Israel, and discounted rates on the Westside JCC's gym, and the response from the athletes and their families so positive, that Liss extended the program for five more weeks.
"When Tali wakes up Sunday morning, the first thing she talks about is basketball practice," said Tali's mother, Leah Hill, as she watched from the sidelines. "She likes being treated with respect, and that's what she gets here."
Tali is a senior at Bais Yakov. "She's very aware of her disabilities -- the differences between her and others," Hill said. "Luckily, the girls in her school have been wonderful."
This year has been particularly difficult, however, because her classmates are all talking about going away to seminaries when they graduate. Though Tali has been accepted to a seminary for special-needs girls in Israel, her mother is still debating whether she will send her.
"Yes!" Hill cried, her attention momentarily taken away by the action on the basketball court, where Tali had made a basket.
"I knew she would make that!" Hill said, smiling with delight. Tali high-fived a teammate.
"This is every parent's dream: physical activity, fun, socializing. Jeff does this out of his own love for these kids. He's just incredible. Where are his wings?"
Though many agencies provide resources for people with special needs, there is nothing else like Special Macabees in the Los Angeles Jewish community.
"We're shomer Shabbos, and every activity we come across is on Saturdays," Hill said. "I'm so grateful for this. I really hope it continues."
Liss would love to run Special Macabees year round, but there are several reasons why that is not yet possible. Starting this month, Liss will be coaching Special Olympics every Monday night. Juggling the two programs isn't possible for the recent father and full-time salesman.
Also, a year-round program would need a consistent number of athletes and volunteer coaches. Funding, of course, would have to increase as well to cover the cost of the gym and equipment.
But Liss would like to expand Special Macabees to include other sports and would like to see it grow into a national organization with an annual competition similar to the the Special Olympics and the Macabee Games.
The fledgling organization, which is currently in the process of applying for nonprofit status, has a long way to go before it reaches such goals, but though the season ends on Feb. 10, Liss is optimistic about the future.
"We're going to grow," he said confidently. "When you have something really good going, it just keeps growing. People want to be a part of it; they want to help, and it gets bigger and bigger."
To sign up for next year's Special Macabees program or for information on how to get involved, call Jay Davies at (818) 585-3257.
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