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Life without limits

Former NBA coach leads camp for differently-abled

Posted: June 5, 2014 - 12:10am
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Leroy George takes a shot during a three-day basketball camp for physically and mentally challenged athletes at Juneau-Douglas High School.   Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Leroy George takes a shot during a three-day basketball camp for physically and mentally challenged athletes at Juneau-Douglas High School.

Don’t tell Greg Brittenham what someone can or can’t do. The former NBA assistant coach sees limitations as walls to be torn down, one brick at a time if needed.

Brittenham spent 20 years overseeing the strength and conditioning program for the New York Knicks, revered as one of the most physically dominant NBA teams of the 1990s under head coach Pat Riley. Brittenham later left the Knicks and found a home at Wake Forest heading its men’s and women’s basketball programs.

These days, he’s not surrounded by NBA All-Stars with names like Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks and Allan Houston. He’s hosting basketball camps in Hoonah, Angoon, Kake, Yakutat and Juneau — places whose school gyms could all fit inside Madison Square Garden with room to spare. Brittenham isn’t concerned with championships and trophies at the moment. His focus is on making a positive impact in people’s lives. Basketball is merely the tool he uses to do it.

The camp in Juneau was different from the others he’s held in Southeast and the longtime camp he runs in Haines, where Brittenham owns a home and has spent his summers since 1992. From Sunday through Tuesday, Brittenham hosted a basketball camp for youths and adults with physical and mental disabilities. The camp is the first of its kind in Juneau.

“Everybody has a unique personality, everybody has a unique skill set,” he said. “You work with them within their limitations, but then you challenge those limitations. That’s the only way you get better. That’s the only way adaptation occurs.”

During the three-day camp, Brittenham and his cadre of assistants: high school coaches, former prep athletes and others, saw campers evolve in the short amount of time they worked together. Campers were put through exercises testing balance, coordination and agility, not to mention the finer points of basketball such as dribbling, passing and shooting.

 

Better by the day

Brittenham ran the camp much like you’d expect. Just because the campers face additional challenges doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged.

“A lot (of the campers) had difficulties standing on one leg the first day,” he said Tuesday. “Today, they’re all doing it. Had they not been challenged, they may go through life without knowing what their strengths are. Now they know they can succeed at something.

“You can’t let other people ... dictate your limitations.”

The last part is a message Brittenham reiterated time and again. He knows the campers have additional challenges, whether that’s being coddled, criticized or excluded by others.

“We’re here to push them,” he said. “We’re working on more than basketball skills.”

Half of the campers are preparing for the 2014 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games, held June 6-8 in Anchorage’s Alaska Dome. The other half had very little basketball experience, if any.

Experience doesn’t matter, nor do hurtful words from naysayers, Brittenham told camper Tammi Birch. “If you want to play, you have to practice and put in the work,” he said.

Birch said she’d never played team basketball before the camp, but she was looking forward to joining a team in the future. She demonstrated a between-the-legs dribble her father had taught her. It was received with an ear-to-ear smile, encouraging words and a high-five. A few minutes later, Brittenham had Birch lead the group in a similar exercise.

“We’re working on teamwork and leadership skills as well,” he said. “Everybody will demonstrate at some point, and they’ll have to get in front of the group. It’s a safe, encouraging environment.”

The difference between the Juneau campers and others he’s worked with from North Carolina to Alaska boils down to attitude. Brittenham said many athletes will tell him they can’t do something. That wasn’t the case with the Juneau group.

“They encourage one another more than any group I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And no one says, ‘I can’t.’”

Brittenham’s infectious enthusiasm and can-do attitude rubbed off on the campers.

“Coach Britt has been incredible,” said camper Chris Brenner. “I’ve learned so much from him. He pointed out what I can do to better, like keeping my feet farther apart when I shoot. He really opened my eyes to what’s possible.”

Brenner wasn’t speaking specifically about possibilities on the court. He has a higher goal in mind.

“I want to be the first autistic governor of Alaska,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in politics.”

 

Ignoring the negative

On the biggest stages, critics scream the loudest. That’s what Brittenham learned after joining the Knicks in 1989.

“We had 18 million people from Washington, D.C., to Boston talking about how bad the Knicks are,” he recalled. “They can’t win, they just don’t have the talent, they’re not athletic enough, they don’t have the skills. Everyday, you read about how you can’t succeed. Every single day, there’s some article about how bad we are, what’s wrong with us. You can either accept it and go to work and get a paycheck, or you just view it as their insecurities ... and go to work every day and see what we can do to move the team forward.”

A mentality of proving doubters wrong is what he wanted campers to hear, regardless of their ability or disability.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s this camp; people are always told they’re too short, not tall enough, not smart enough, not athletic enough, you don’t have the skills — you either accept others’ opinion of you, or you set it aside and have the determination to prove them wrong.

“If you want to play high school basketball, do the work necessary to play high school basketball. That’s your own destiny. Don’t let other people decide for you.”

To demonstrate his point, Brittenham showed campers two shoes. One belonged to Nate Robinson, a 5-foot-7 guard who spent his first four seasons with the Knicks. The other, a size-22, belonged to Dikembe Mutombo. Both nearly had their dreams derailed by doubt. One doubted himself, the other faced it from everyone around.

“(Nate Robinson) was told his whole life there was no way he could play pro ball,” Brittenham said. “Even family members told him basketball wasn’t his game. But he had this desire to make it to the NBA.”

Robinson went on to win three slam dunk titles and played a pivotal role with the 2012 Chicago Bulls after star guard Derrick Rose was lost to a season-ending injury. He signed a long-term deal with the Denver Nuggets last season.

The 7-foot-2 owner of other shoe became known as Mount Mutombo for his shot-blocking ability (he finished an 18-year career with the second-most blocks in NBA history), but “didn’t have the confidence in himself that he could play.

“He wanted to stay in the Congo in his village,” Brittenham said. “His family and the encouragement of others got him to go to the States.”

Mutombo did go back to the Congo, but it was to build hospitals in poverty-stricken regions and to purchase hundreds of thousands of mosquito nets for children there. About 1,600 children die daily in Africa, Brittenham said, stressing the impact the $5 nets have had and how the region would be far different had Mutombo not been encouraged by others. The two examples, Brittenham said, show “both ends of the spectrum” in regards to having confidence in yourself and the confidence of others.

 

Ready for a repeat

Brittenham is ready to make the Juneau camp an annual event and plan to return next year. This year’s camp was made possible, he said, by the commitment of several individuals in Southeast.

Andrew Friske of Haines, who is well-known throughout Southeast for his involvement with the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament, put Brittenham in touch with Juneau-Douglas track coach Janette Gagnon, a special education teacher at the high school.

Brittenham first came to Alaska with the program Challenge Life, a basketball camp on the North Slope that addressed issues like suicide and abuse, as well as leadership and academics. Of course, there was playing basketball, too. The camp, and his time in Alaska, had a long-lasting impact. Brittenham’s son, Max, who attended the recent Southeast camps as an assistant coach, had worked at camps in Colorado similar to the one held in Juneau this week.

“We felt like we could do the same thing here in Southeast,” Brittenham said.

Brittenham reached out to Gagnon, who in turn reached out to others. The result was a team of coaches, teachers and former high school athletes that equaled the number of campers.

Gagnon said she was a little nervous because basketball isn’t her sport. JDHS boys basketball head coach Robert Caperson and Gastineau Elementary teacher Ben Kriegmont were happy to lend a hand.

“Watching all the volunteers come together and enjoying this experience — they come from so many different areas — has been amazing. Most of these athletes I’ve coached or taught, and it’s fun to see them now that they’re adults.”

Many campers were nervous the first day, she said, but by Monday they were “running into the gym to get started.”

“Some hide in corners in a big gym class,” she said, “but during the camp they’re leading drills.”

Casperson said the drills at the camp look easier than they are, giving him some ideas to implement when his Juneau Fast Break Basketball Camp starts next week.

“Some of his warm-up stuff looks very simple, but when the coaching staff is out doing it, it really challenges everybody to stay on balance and control their body. I’ve been impressed with the simple things (Brittenham has) provided these campers with, and how it even challenges the coaching staff.”

The experience has been “heart-warming,” said Casperson, a Floyd Dryden Middle School teacher, adding that he’d never worked with challenged individuals outside of the classroom before.

“These campers are working as hard as they can, to the best of their ability,” he said. “That’s all any coach could ask for. This group is incredible to work with.”

Gagnon said some of the exercises could be incorporated into her gym classes at JDHS.

“Selfishly, I think the coaches involved will get more out of it than the athletes,” Brittenham admitted. “Everyone here has a desire to want to help these campers.”

Brittenham and his wife, Luann, sponsored this year’s free camp. They’re hoping to attract additional sponsors in the future. But if he doesn’t, the camp will go on anyway.

“We should all try and make a difference in someone’s life, whether its a guy on the street corner or a group like this,” he said. “If you can make someone smile, ease someone’s burden, what a wonderful life that would be if everyone had that mindset.”

• Charles L. Westmoreland is managing editor for the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at 523-2265 or at charles.westmoreland@juneauempire.com.

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