With the help of a suburban New Jersey organization that pairs children with special needs with teenage volunteers, a group of energetic athletes-in-the-making can now dribble, shoot and score. After their first exhibition game last week, they even have one win under their belts.

The Livingston, N.J.-based Friendship Circle, a project of Chabad-Lubavitch of Livingston and one of 65 branches of a international network dedicated to helping children with special needs integrate into society, spent five weeks assembling a basketball team under the athletic direction of Bob Wasilak. The coach taught the Teen Scene Basketball League members the basics of the game and the importance of team work.

The instruction apparently paid off, as evidenced by the Friendship Circle's 52-48 win in their Dec. 17 exhibition game against the Jaguars from Joseph Kushner Academy, a local Jewish private school.

But while the victory was an accomplishment in and of itself parent Linda Kay from Parsippany was amazed that her 19-year-old son Eric had it in him to even play.

"It was a phenomenal experience for him and for me," revealed Kay. "Sometimes we don't realize the gifts our children possess, and watching Eric play basketball quite adeptly today was truly a thrill of a lifetime for me.

"The experience unlocked a skill that Eric can use in other settings," she continued. "We began talking about him playing basketball on the team at his school, and looking into Special Olympics basketball. And, of course, we hope that there will be more opportunities through Friendship Circle for Eric to play."

For his part, Eric said that he had a great time.

"It was a good game," said the player, who scored a few baskets. "It felt really good when everyone cheered."

A Friendship Circle teen learns the basics of dribbling early on in a basketball practice session.
A Friendship Circle teen learns the basics of dribbling early on in a basketball practice session.
Jaguar coach Craig Goldman, who also directs athletic programs at Kushner Academy, invited the Friendship Circle team to play because some of his players volunteer to spend one-on-one time with some of the organization's children with special needs.

Shelby Block, 16, who helped Wasilak prep the Friendship Circle team, said that it was a thrill to see so many smiles on the court.

"After all the weeks of working with the Friendship Circle's team, it was great to see them play against the competition," said Shelby, one of some 600 volunteers in the Friendship Circle that serves the MetroWest area of northern New Jersey. "They were having so much fun and were genuinely happy."

Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Livingston, said that sports activities can be the perfect opportunity to help teens develop self-confidence.

"The Friendship Circle's sports programs, including the Basketball League, Soccer Circle and Sports Night, are so important because they provide children and teens with special needs the ability to participate in competitive sports in a comfortable, nurturing and inclusive environment," said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Livingston. "At the basketball game, you could really see the empowerment and confidence these teens gained by playing as part of a team and exercising the skills they've been practicing so diligently."