“Everybody's got their spot," said 15-year-old Michael Royal, describing how he and his teammates at Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center became a powerhouse. Michael found his on the left side of the basketball court near the net. He can shoot baskets from there best because he's left-handed, he guesses. Michael scored 10 baskets last week at the 20th annual Leonard Shearer March Madness Basketball Tournament. His team won both games they played, taking home two trophies.
The event pits students from six schools throughout the county who would not typically get a chance to play team sports. They have conditions such as anxiety and bipolar disorder, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
"Many of them have lived through significant abuse," said Clara Reynolds, director at Success 4 Kids & Families, which partnered with the University of Tampa to put on the games.
"We celebrate the coping skills these kids have and help them build more," she said.
About 120 students played ball and cheered each other from the UT bleachers.
Students at Michael's school get to train puppies to be service dogs and brought two along to the games.
Team sports work as an incentive, Reynolds said. Often children with emotional and behavioral disabilities have a hard time in school. They want to fit in. They want camaraderie.
Two years ago, Michael was at Webb Middle School.
"I got in a lot of fights," he said. "I had a hard time following rules."
That's how he ended up at Dorothy Thomas.
Michael has attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and sometimes has to work to control his anger. He is also diabetic.
One of five children, he lives in Carrollwood with his parents. Like his father, his favorite basketball team is the Miami Heat.
At school these days, he knows exactly what he needs to do to keep playing ball. Stay focused.
The day before the tournament, for extra practice, Michael's team took on teachers at the school for a friendly game.
"They all got mouths," he said of the teachers, before the game. "They say we can't beat them."
A reading teacher was the one that worried him. Michael had seen him move on the court and he was pretty fast.
Michael likes reading. Last year, his class read aloud the book Holes. The story told of a boy wrongly accused of stealing who was sent to a detention facility where he was forced to dig holes in the ground to build character.
His own school isn't nearly as hard. The teachers are pretty nice, Michael said.
Later, the game against the teachers ended in a tie.
Next year, Michael hopes to go to Alonso High School.
Michael sees the game of basketball as a microcosm of life. He knows the game and life take teamwork and every member working at his best.
"I think it's a good thing in life to find your spot," he said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.