As head coach of Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball team, Buzz Williams is working hard to make the Hokies a contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference. While that is still a work in progress, there is no doubt he has already succeeded in turning his players into fine young men.
If you question the above statement, there is a group of more than 20 Carroll County basketball players who will be happy to attest to its validity. On Saturday, August 1, the Carroll County Special Olympics basketball team was invited to take part in Buzz’s Bunch – a non-profit organization Williams created five years ago at Marquette University as a way to bring together children with disabilities and allow them to fall in love with the game of basketball.
At the Buzz’s Bunch event on Aug. 1, disabled children and adults were given the opportunity to take part in a half-day basketball camp with the Virginia Tech coaching staff and players. Campers were split into groups by age and rotated from station to station manned by different Hokies. There were agility drills, fun activities, and the basket was even lowered to allow the athletes the chance to be able to dunk a basketball.
“Anybody in this area would love to go spend the morning with the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team and be taught basketball skills,” said Vickey Ritchie, Carroll County’s Special Olympics basketball coach. “This is just a great thing. And those Virginia Tech basketball players are just as happy as our athletes are. One of them told one of the athletes that he enjoyed it more than they did.”
Since Williams took over the Virginia Tech program a little over a year ago, Ritchie said he has went out of his way to make the Buzz’s Bunch program as successful in Blacksburg as it was at Marquette. Although Ritchie didn’t want credit for it, Buzz even took one of her suggestions to heart last year, allowing adults to participate in the program as well.
“It was originally for kids up to the age of 19 or 20. When they contacted me last summer about it, I said I wouldn’t do it because we have 63 kids on our team, but over half of them are over that age. I told them I didn’t want to tell one you can do it and one you can’t. So last year we took four of our athletes, two kids that were 11 and my daughter Jeannie, who is 27, and LaRae Hall, who is 24. And they saw they enjoyed it just as much as the kids, so they changed Buzz’s Bunch to reflect that adults with special needs could come, too. His vision at Marquette was helping disabled kids, but I have a 68-year-old on my team and I knew he would enjoy it as much as an 8-year-old.”
Obviously, Buzz’s Bunch has done something right. Ritchie noted that at last year’s camp, two kids came to Blacksburg all the way from Marquette, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“And this time there were seven families that came all the way from Marquette. That was impressive to me,” Ritchie said. “When you have a program and change schools, the program doesn’t continue usually. Each year he has done something so impressive to me. Before we ate, he gathered the kids and asked to pray. He had the players come in to make sure each child had an athlete or coach there touching them, and he said, ‘Lord, let us see how well these parents are doing with these young athletes and how impressive these young athletes are and how much they continue to overcome.’ It gives you an idea of the heart and soul of the man. It wasn’t something to just showcase Buzz. It’s not like that. He is very genuine in doing this. It’s just like when I suggested about the adult special needs’ players. He saw how much they were enjoying it and he said, ‘You bring them on.’ He could have said, ‘Look, I am doing enough with ones up to age 19,’ and to be honest, that would be much easier.”
As part of the program, Virginia Tech also invites the Buzz’s Bunch participants back for a men’s basketball game in December, where they get to shoot around with the team a couple of hours before the game. They also get to sit in special seats in the stands and are put on TV as the team’s honored guests.
Everything about the Aug. 1 camp was catered to make the participants feel like world class athletes. Ritchie noted after players participated in several stations, a basketball goal was lowered to let all the participants dunk a basketball.
“It was awesome. It wasn’t hard to convince a couple of them, but the others wanted to do a jump shot at the basket. The Virginia Tech players had to explain to them they could slam it,” Ritchie said. “Also, we had two athletes in wheelchairs and they accommodated us. Alvie Ayers is 68 and Kesha Phillips is 34. They are very different individuals. She can use her hands very well and has good upper body strength, where he has not much hand movement, but they found a way to fit them into the drills.”
Ritchie couldn’t say enough about the Virginia Tech players during the Buzz’s Bunch event. They obviously weren’t forced to be there.
“It looked like every single one of them was having as good of a time as the athletes. They were smiling and just as sincere and genuine and met our players their level,” Ritchie said. “For instance, some of the 21 we took, some were very high-functioning and some were not. They split the groups by age, but they quickly sized up what they could do and couldn’t do and met them right there. One young lady from another group was just sobbing and I saw a player take her finger and he just held it. She looked up at him and then just quit crying. It was very easy to see Buzz had talked to them and worked with them on how to interact. He is really teaching them to be men by doing something like this, not just teaching them about basketball. It doesn’t hurt anyone at all to be nice to people and he is very concerned at how they look at the world.”
Ritchie said the Carroll County contingent also got to spend quality camp time with a former Carroll County coach – Jeff Reynolds, who is now the Director of Basketball Operations for Virginia Tech. Prior to beginning a 35-year career in college coaching, Reynolds started as an assistant coach at Carroll County High School with the 1978-79 team. Led by Pat Sharp and a host of other talented players, Carroll went to the state’s final four two years in a row before Reynolds took over as head coach for the 1980-1981 season. The team won the New River District that year before Reynolds left to begin his college career.
“Jeff Reynolds, that day at the camp, his role was to put the very handicapped completely at ease. Everybody there that was hanging back a little or a little shy, he went right to them. He would spin the ball on his finger and then put it on their finger and it was still spinning,” Ritchie said. “That just meant a million dollars to those kids. He’s just a very unassuming guy, just very nice.”
Even the meal for the Buzz’s Bunch participants was first class. After the camp, the athletes were taken to Cassell Coliseum, where a meal had been catered by Outback Steakhouse.
“They could have served them hot dogs and that would have been fine, but they served them Outback, and I thought, ‘Man, this is just pure class.’ Every family member was welcome to eat,” Ritchie said. “And the Virginia Tech players were helping serve, getting drinks for people before they got to eat.”
And when the Carroll County Special Olympians returned home, there was one last surprise that served as icing on the cake for one player.
“They got home and looked at the Buzz’s Bunch website. Buzz had tweeted about Kesha,” Ritchie said. “He tweeted about her and that meant so much to her. Her mom called me up and said, ‘Hey, he really wanted her there!’”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN