With the varsity at one end of the court and junior varsity at the other, Jake Schildknegt looked on, standing next to the Gatorade jug with a basketball in hand.
He dribbled for a bit, spun the ball on his index finger for a few seconds, and practiced his shooting stance, watching intently as the players ran through rebounding drills on Wednesday.
When asked what his favorite basketball team was, Jake, wearing the white side of a reversible State College practice jersey with maroon shorts and black sneakers, didn’t say the Sixers, Lakers, Celtics or Cavaliers.
He didn’t say Penn State, Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina, either.
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Jake, donning his favorite No. 21, looked out to the court and pointed.
“This one,” he said beaming.
Jake loves the Little Lions, and the feeling is mutual.
He brings something special to the gym.
Joe Walker, State College head coach
A senior at State College, Jake is an intellectually disabled student and a team manager for the boys’ basketball team. He’s on the bench for every home game and is in the gym for most practices.
The Little Lions cherish having him around, just as much as he treasures the opportunity.
“A reason why we have kids like him come in here is so that our players can never give me an excuse about not being able to do something,” State College assistant coach Rudy Burruss said. “He watches them. He wants to be where they’re at. He comes out and gives 100 percent. They can’t accept failure then. ... They’ll want to do more. They’ll want to make sure he’s happy.”
Burruss, who serves the State College Area School District as a paraprofessional working with children with special needs, helped set up the manager’s role.
Jake is a basketball junkie. He’s involved in Special Olympics and wanted to be a part of the State College basketball program, too.
So over the summer, Jake asked Burruss if he could be a manager, and the coach obliged without hesitation.
“I said no problem,” Burruss recalled. “Come on over.”
When Jake first joined the team, he was rather shy. Burruss said one of the main reasons why he thought the team manager role would be good from the get-go was to help the senior better vocalize his feelings and thoughts.
State College head coach Joe Walker remembers Jake being timid and quiet during the first couple weeks of practice.
But once the players got to know him, that changed pretty quickly.
“The way we’ve seen him grow with his expression and excitement about things has been incredible,” Walker said. “His growth in a very short time around a lot of people has been cool to watch.”
Burruss has noticed what it’s done for Jake in the hallways of State High, too.
“When he first started school, he’d walk around with his head down,” the coach said. “Now, he’s a little bit more proud.”
Jake overheard Burruss, puffed out his chest and smiled.
“That’s it right there,” Burruss said pointing to him. “It’s that peacock look. Everyone in the school knows who he is. All the kids love him.”
Especially the Little Lions.
Every water break, every halt in practice, players go over to Jake to talk, flex and laugh.
Junior forward Brandon Clark said Jake’s presence makes everyone on the team upbeat.
Sophomore guard Tommy Friberg agreed.
“He’s a big part of our team,” Friberg said. “He always has a great attitude. Win or loss, you always have to be grateful for what you have and be happy.”
Jake’s presence certainly provides the Little Lions with perspective, but him being around makes practice more fun.
As Wednesday’s session was wrapping up, each player had to run around the track above the court once and get timed.
When the varsity players were finished, Jake was next in line. With Walker chasing him, Jake cruised around the top with the Little Lions looking up from the court cheering him on.
“You got it Jake!”
“Dang, Jake ran that faster than you,” senior forward Gavin Schaefer-Hood said to classmate Tommy Sekunda.
When the sprint was over, Jake walked down the stairs to a barrage of cheers, high-fives and fist-bumps.
A few moments later, State College’s huddle broke and practice was deemed over.
Immediately, Jake hustled over to the rack and grabbed a ball. He moseyed on over to the free throw line and started to shoot.
Off the back rim.
Off the side rim.
Seemingly every other shot from the charity stripe went in, and after every shot, whether it sunk or not, Jake was there smiling.
It was a perfect end to his favorite part of the day.
“He brings something special to the gym,” Walker said. “He’s always happy to be here, and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes being in the gym feels like a day of work, but he’s here putting up shots. He’s happy to be here, and that rubs off on everyone else.”
“It’s the best benefit we could possibly have,” Burruss added. “He’s proven to them that they can do more.”