It’s gametime, and the players bring their hands together in a huddle. A different player leads the chant each time, but it always ends the same and sends the team out on the court the same way:
“R! H! D!”
The RHD Tigers are a basketball team made up of consumers from RHD Memphis, which provides residential habilitation, supported employment and personal assistance to persons with developmental disabilities in supportive, supervised settings. Staff at RHD Memphis started the team as a means of engagement for consumers, but soon found something extraordinary happening — as consumers worked to become a team on the floor, the lessons they took from the experience helped them grow and progress off it.
“I like my team,” said James, the Tigers’ point guard. “It’s not about me; it’s about the whole team. We work together. If you want to be a winner, you’ve got to show good leadership. You’ve got to be professional. That means you can’t quit. You can’t let your team down. You’ve got to stay strong.
“On our team, we’re always telling each other: You can do it. Don’t give up. We stick together — like glue.”
Devin Graffed, a Direct Support Professional at RHD Mainstay South, played basketball in high school and devotes extra time to coach the team.
“It makes them happy, and I think it’s really helpful,” Graffed said. “They’re not just playing — they’re playing for something.”
Every consumer at RHD who wants to be part of the team has a role somewhere — whether it’s playing or helping or cheering. In addition to consumers who act as cheerleaders for each game, an RHD consumer named Bobby who is too old to play acts as the team’s equipment manager, handing out towels and water and shouting encouragement.
“We don’t want anybody feeling left out; everybody is a part of it,” Graffed said.
“We always try to come up with creative ways for our individuals to have engagement,” said Terrence Ryans, RHD Memphis Program Director. “We’re person-centered, so it’s really about what they like and dislike. We try to introduce our consumers to different things, but a lot of the guys watch and love basketball. So we try to do something they would like. We were able to create this avenue for them, and it’s worked really well.
“Being on the team has really helped them to have a focus, learn how to work with others, taught them things about sportsmanship. It gives them something to look forward to, helps foster peer relationships as well as community relationships.”
Making a team was easy enough, but finding opponents was something else. Spurred by RHD staff, a league of local providers cobbled itself together so that consumers from different agencies could play against each other. Everyone worked together to formalize the league, scheduling games at the Raymond Skinner Center and hiring referees. On game day, the place is packed — RHD staff shows up to support the team, and consumers who don’t play come to cheer on their friends.
“When the RHD people come and cheer, we get hyped up,” said Darrell. “It makes us want to win the game for RHD. We don’t want to let people down.”
When RHD is playing, the gym is at a full roar the entire time (“The games are a really big to-do here,” Ryan said). Every shot, every play, every trip up and down the court gets plenty of positive reinforcement from the stands.
“It encourages them, and we want to perpetuate positivity, positive reinforcement, positive ways to get attention,” Ryans said “This is a good avenue for that. We have individuals who may not have been as social, who may not have known how to engage with their peers appropriately, and we’ve seen people open up and learn how to work with people they didn’t know. This setting has created something that propels them toward being more open, and more willing to socialize.
“Some of our guys have experienced a lot of growth and tremendous progress. Being part of the basketball team has aided in their success.”
Chase is one of the first consumers at the gym on gamedays; he wakes up excited and eager to go.
“Playing basketball with RHD has been very important to me,” Chase said. “It’s exciting. I love being a part of the team. One time I got sick and couldn’t play. But I went to the game and cheered for my teammates. That’s important.
“Basketball is about leadership. You have to show others that you don’t get mad if things don’t go your way. That’s what’s cheered me up in my life, that shows leadership — ignoring negativity, thinking about positive stuff every day.”