ERLANGER, Ky. — When Ashley Hicks puts on her Special Olympics of Northern Kentucky Silverbacks uniform, something magical happens.
“Her whole face lights up,” Donna Hicks said of her 19-year-old daughter. “It’s incredible to watch her demeanor change. She’s all smiles.”
The longtime Special Olympics athlete’s passion for basketball is one of the few things she has in common with her teammates. The Silverbacks, one of 11 teams in Special Olympics of Northern Kentucky’s basketball league, is co-ed and its 12 players range in age from about 15 to 35. Each is at a different skill level, and the players all face their own set of challenges.
While that may not sound like the best lineup for a cohesive team, head coach Steve Craig said the players’ differences work in their favor.
“Every player brings something unique to the team,” Craig said. “What brings them together is their love of the game.”
Another common thread is their desire for people to see beyond their disabilities.
“It’s pretty simple, really,” Craig said. “They just want to be treated like everyone else.”
That simple wish led Craig to reach out to Mary, Queen of Heaven School’s boys’ basketball coach last season with a request: a practice game against the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade basketball players. To Craig’s surprise, coach William Croyle not only accepted the request, but also decided to make the practice game a service project for his team.
“We wanted to do something special to show our support for the Silverbacks,” Croyle said.
In the span of about a week, Mary, Queen of Heaven players garnered enough support from the school community to make the practice game a big event. The teams played last year in a game complete with a live performance of the national anthem, an announcer and contests with prizes between quarters. A standing-room-only crowd packed the school’s small gym and joined St. Henry District High School cheerleaders in cheering on the Silverbacks as they defeated the Knights and won trophies after the game. Donations at the door also resulted in more than $500 for Special Olympics of Northern Kentucky.
For the Silverbacks, it was a dream come true.
“I felt like a superstar,” Ashley Hicks said.
Her teammate Zach Mitchell agreed.
“It was great,” he said. “There was a big crowd there to see us.”
The game was such a success, both coaches wanted to keep the connection between the teams. Croyle promised a rematch and has made the game an annual event.
On March 9, Mary, Queen of Heaven will host the second-annual "MQH vs. Silverbacks" game at 7 p.m. at the school in Erlanger. The game is free, open to public and donations will be collected at the door for Special Olympics Northern Kentucky.
This year, Mary, Queen of Heaven has even more surprises in store for the Silverbacks. Former University of Kentucky basketball player Andre Riddick will serve as an honorary coach for the team during the game, and Kentucky native Marlana VanHoose, a young woman who has been blind since birth, will sing the national anthem. VanHoose, who has performed all over the U.S., also sang the national anthem here last year when Cincinnati hosted the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
“We’re expecting a crowd,” said Mary, Queen of Heaven player Aidan Dragone. “We had a big turnout last year, and that was a great feeling for us.”
The Silverbacks are ready. The players have been practicing for the upcoming matchup and preparing for their biggest game this season. The team received an at-large invitation to play at the 2016 Special Olympics Kentucky State Basketball Tournament, March 11-13, in Louisville.
“We are very excited,” said Silverbacks player Mitchell Craig. “We have two big games coming up.”
Regardless of the outcome of either game, Coach Craig said his team has already won. The Silverbacks have come a long way since the team started four years ago, he said.
“They give it everything they have, 110 percent, every single game,” he said. “During our practices and games, you can look out on the court and the sweat is just rolling off of them, but they’re smiling from ear to ear.
“That’s what it’s all about.”