There were digital cameras rolling, cheers and shouting, and horns blaring as the players hustled up and down the basketball court -- athletes participating in Special Olympics Maryland's 2007 Spring Classic.
While the likes of Kansas, Southern Illinois and Virginia Tech battled to move to the next round in this year's NCAA tournament, more than 500 athletes from across Maryland were vying yesterday for medals of gold, silver and bronze on courts at Towson University.
The cameras were likely for home video collections, and the shouts were from parents and friends cheering the players on as they dribbled, pivoted and shot. But the athletes took their saves, scores and steals just as seriously as their college counterparts on national television.
"This is our version of March Madness," said Tom Waite, Special Olympics Maryland's senior vice president of sports management. "Just as every other youth and adult [is] into basketball at this time of year, our Special Olympics athletes have been training."
Besides its heady combination of sport and competition, the event enhances the players' life skills, teaching them socialization and increasing their physical fitness and well-being, said Kelley Schniedwind, vice president of public relations and communications.
"It's their social outlet," Schniedwind said. "It's where their friends are."
To qualify for the state level, the athletes had to undergo at least eight weeks of training and take part in a couple of local tournaments, Schniedwind said.
Players can range from as young as 8 years to well into adulthood, organized into divisions based on their ability, to "give everybody a fair chance to succeed," Schniedwind said. While teams of three played half-court in one building, teams of five challenged each other in various venues. The games can run up to 20 minutes, or until one of the teams scores 20 points, said Steve Bennett, director of competition.
For Sterling Saunders, 28, the tournament is more than a chance to play his beloved sport -- a passion that has led Howard County Special Olympics coach Jack Burk to call him "Jordan," after the Chicago Bulls great.
"I love it," said Saunders, whose team won the gold yesterday in its division of three-on-three basketball, fighting its way back after starting off behind. "I always thought that I could give back from what I learned over my playing years."
Saunders, who has cerebral palsy, was a technical foul shooter for the basketball team at Columbia's Hammond High School, where he graduated in 1998. Lately, he's acted as a volunteer coach for his alma mater -- and has alternately played for and helped coach the county Special Olympics teams -- while also studying at Howard Community College.
Before Saunders and his teammates stepped onto the court, Miriam Braswell and her fellow players had held onto their 18-4 lead until the horn sounded, signaling the end of their game against a Prince George's County team, and their win.
This year was Braswell's first, but the seemingly effortless swish that followed the 20-year-old Laurel resident's shots belied her recent arrival.
Her parents said they were excited to see her in action.
"It allows her to explore her dream, her vision," said Joseph Braswell, one of several fathers and mothers who had come to support their children -- or bellow instructions from the sidelines. He added that basketball was "something she's been wanting to do for a while."
On a neighboring court, athletes lined up to hone their individual skills, whether dribbling, shooting or passing, in hopes of exploring a similar dream of playing on a team.
"Good try!" a volunteer said to 10-year-old Vivienne Morgan of Prince George's County after she took aim for the net and fell just shy of the rim. "Come on, you got it."
Vivienne took the ball and tried again, just missing the hoop. Nearby, a girl worked at bounce-passing the ball to another volunteer, while others tried their hands at dribbling.
The tournament gives credibility to the players, Waite said. "It gives our athletes the feeling of being no different than everybody else. ... They want to be seen as athletes."