You know, it’s funny. Sometimes it can take something totally disappearing for you to understand exactly how much it meant to your existence.
I’ve been in basketball close to 52 years now — since I first picked up a ball when I was eight, the game has been part of my life. I have lived it, breathed it and been obsessed with it for almost as long as I can remember.
But when I retired in 1999 — and I started to transition from a life on the court to a life off it — the strong feelings I had for the game began to change. I still loved it, but I was also starting to miss my family more and more. The constant travel and time away from home was challenging. Basketball was still my life, but I constantly missed my family.
So when the NBA shut down last month because of the COVID-19 crisis, I knew I would miss the game, but the break felt like a welcome reprieve because I also knew that it would give me more time with my family. I’ve worked in the Hawks’ front office for the last 16 years, and I still travel with the team and work as a game analyst on TV.
For a few weeks, while we were in isolation, I didn’t really watch any basketball. It was only a few days ago, in fact, that I watched my first game since the NBA went on break. It was on the Internet, the Cavaliers’ 109–108 victory over the Warriors on Christmas Day in 2016. And I was surprised by my reaction.
I was transfixed. I fell in love with basketball all over again.
The camaraderie of the players, the competitiveness of the game, and the way that the fans in Cleveland came together as one brought me back to all the reasons I laced up my boots and picked up a basketball in the first place. It made me long for the return of this beloved game.
A simple game that anyone could pick up and play.
A game that anyone could enjoy, and a game that everyone could be united by.
As I was thinking about this, I felt a twinge of sadness. You see, what many of you might not know is that I have two children with special needs. My 22-year-old daughter, Danielle, is on the autism spectrum, and my 12-year-old daughter, JoJo, has spina bifida — and both of them have sensory needs. Going to live games has always been a challenge for them. The crowd, the noise, the lights, the looks from people who don’t understand their challenges.
It got to the point where I had to stop taking them to games. I could see their disappointment and their fear — and the way people judged them and misunderstood them — time and time again. I didn’t want to put them through that.
Courtesy of Dominique Wilkins
It wasn’t until I learned about sensory inclusion and the KultureCity foundation that this began to change. (Full disclosure: I have been on the board at KultureCity for the last three years.) It was in 2018 that KultureCity worked with the State Farm Arena in Atlanta to make it sensory inclusive. KultureCity provided training to arena staff and volunteers on what sensory needs are, and instructed them on how to accept and include guests with disabilities, creating a sensory room and also providing sensory bags and other tools. This was a game-changer for my family.
No longer would we not be able to go to a game as a family. All of my children could finally be accepted, accommodated and included.
As I sat there watching that game on the Internet last week, I realized that the social isolation we are all feeling now — and the sense of missing out on the ability to enjoy all our favorite sports games and concerts and other live events — is something that my two children live through all the time. Like so many other kids with similar challenges, this is their daily life.
So tomorrow, as we recognize World Autism Awareness Day, take a moment and reflect.
Basketball will be back. Stronger and better than before.
Our sense of social isolation will disappear as we rejoin our communities.
But for those with sensory needs and disabilities, the world will remain the same unless we change it for them by increasing our understanding, acceptance and inclusion.
So, on this World Autism Awareness Day, let’s promote autism inclusion by learning more about sensory inclusion.