Newton North Basketball Coach Paul Connolly (first from right) will be honored with the MDSC’s Educator Award on Saturday in Worcester for his work integrating team manager Brendan Durkin (first from left) into his basketball program. Durkin, who has Down syndrome, made headlines in December when he scored a buzzer beating shot at the TD Garden and was highlighted on ESPN Boston and other outlets.
On Saturday, March 22, one day after World Down Syndrome Awareness Day, the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress (MDSC), a Burlington-based non-profit organization, will hold its 30th Annual Conference to celebrate the true Champions of the Down syndrome movement here in Massachusetts and demonstrate the resilience of our community and how we all pull together to ensure that people with Down syndrome everywhere have opportunities to lead fulfilling lives. Coach Connolly will receive the award at the Awards Luncheon at the Conference. Durkin will be present as well.
In 2012, a young man named Brendan Durkin, a member of our Advocates in Motion program, delivered the keynote speech at our Northeast Down Syndrome Education Conference. In the audience that day was Paul Connolly, the Newton North High School varsity basketball coach. To Brendan’s parents, it was no surprise that Coach Connolly would make a point of being there – he had been there for Brendan from the moment they were in introduced in 2008 when Brendan first visited the school.
It was then that Brendan told Coach Connolly that he was interested in basketball, and coach’s response was, “However you want to be involved, Brendan, we will make it happen.” And they did.
Even before Brendan, Coach was committed to students with special needs. When not on the court, he works with students in the school’s special education programs. And while Brendan is the only student with Down syndrome on the team, Coach has mentioned how proud he is that the team has been able to include several players who are in special education programs.
In Brendan’s case, Coach Connolly has encouraged the team to value Brendan’s role, giving him opportunities to deliver the pre-game pep talk and stand center court for the announcement of the starting players.
When Brendan earned his certificate of attainment in 2012, everyone decided to put managing the team behind him. But since his post-graduate program was in the same school, Brendan continued to see all the basketball players – his friends. And, of course, they didn’t want him to go.
Again, with Coach Connolly acting as lead facilitator, Brendan continued to gain confidence and skills. He said goodbye to the aide who helped him learn to manage, instead allowing the team to be Brendan’s natural support. He began riding the bus to away games with the team, independently arranging his rides to practice with his teammates, and not only attending team dinners but even hosting one.
Then, on Saturday, Jan. 25, Brendan, Coach Connolly and the entire team took their game to the next level. That’s when Newton North, as one of 14 of the area’s top Division 1 boys programs, was asked to play in the Boston Celtics’ Good Sports Invitational at the TD Garden.
In the final minute of the event's final game, Coach Connolly put Brendan in the game. Brendan hit a buzzer-beating shot in the lane with time expiring. But the story doesn’t end there. After the game, Coach Connolly recognized that the significance of the event was not in his team’s 32-point victory, but in what those final seconds said about Brendan and the team he managed.
Noting that Brendan was on “cloud nine,” Connolly made arrangements for his team manager to speak at the post-game press conference sitting next to one of his teammates. “I've been managing for about seven years now," Brendan said. “I've never been on the court before. This was my first time doing this and this feels really nice.”
Brendan was quick to recognize his mentor. “He's so supportive of me. He looks up to me. My team looks up to me,” he said. In typical fashion, Coach Connolly put the focus back on Brendan and his team. "My kids all embrace him,” he said, “Did you see how fast those guys raced down to the press room when they found out he was speaking?"
Brendan’s mom summed it up this way. Under Coach Connelly’s tutelage, Brendan has grown from a shy, unsure freshman, with basketball players towering above him, to the confident manager of the team, whom Coach Connolly treats like the other guys and expects Brendan to do his best everyday on the court. “Durkin, get moving,” he says.
Coach Connolly wants all the kids on the team to succeed, she added. Brendan is just part of the team.
We are proud to present the MDSC’s Educators Award this year to Coach Paul Connolly.
About Down Syndrome
World Down Syndrome Awareness Day is celebrated annually on March 21. This date, 3/21, was chosen because Down syndrome occurs when a person has three (rather than two) copies of the 21st chromosome. One in every 691 babies is born with Down syndrome. Life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has increased dramatically in recent decades - from 25 in 1983 to more than 60 today. People with Down syndrome attend school, work; participate in decisions that affect them, and contribute to society in many ways.
About the MDSC
As we have over the past nearly three decades, the MDSC continues to ensure that all individuals in Massachusetts with Down syndrome are valued, included, and given every opportunity to pursue fulfilling lives. In the early years, parents met in a living room to share information about their children, provide support for each other and strategize how to educate their families, schools and communities. More than 28 years later, the MDSC has over 3,000 members, an energetic Board of Directors, a dynamic management team, and a vision to ensure that every person with Down syndrome has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. Today, the MDSC is on the cutting edge of Down syndrome advocacy at a time when an innovative, forward-thinking vision is needed.
The MDSC offers a broad array of programs to serve people with Down syndrome and their families throughout the state, including: our signature Parent’s First Call Program, a volunteer, state-wide group of trained parent mentors available 24/7 that is a national model; two major annual conferences that draw national and international experts in their fields; a Buddy Walk® Program that gives individuals, schools, community groups, and local businesses an opportunity to get involved in fundraising campaigns and events year-round; aTeacher Partnership Network that matches educators with experience teaching students with Down syndrome with teachers who have limited or no experience; Self-Advocate Programs like Advocates in Motion and our Self-Advocate Advisory Council, which provide opportunities for teens and adults with Down syndrome while making empowerment a central component.