By Matt Straub (reprinted with permission)
BRISTOL — University of Connecticut men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun says he’ll do anything for his players, but he had to turn down a request from his former star Ray Allen to come cheer him on at Game 4 of the NBA Finals in Boston last night.
While Celtics fans were blowing the roof off the TD Garden trying to help their team even its series with the rival L.A. Lakers, Calhoun was in Bristol, raising the roof for a more important cause.
Calhoun, along with former basketball coach and current head of the Institute of International Sports Dan Doyle, was speaking at Bristol Central High School at a fundraiser for the Shepard Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center.
The Center, located on Hill Street, provides equine activities for children with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. One of the group’s main focuses is working with Autistic children and the purpose of the event was to help raise funds for a roof on the Riding Center, which will allow the organization to give lessons and services for the entire year.
Calhoun has two grandchildren who are Autistic, and said several times during his roughly 20-minute speech that he was moved by the organization’s work.
“When it deals with something like Shepard Meadows, it hits home,” Calhoun said. “I’m thrilled to be here… It’s unbelievable the therapeutic nature of these beautiful animals.”
The staff at Shepard Meadows is primarily part-time, consisting of paid staff and volunteers. The group has six trained horses. Thereputic riding benefits, according to Shepard Meadows’ literature, improved balance and strength for children, aides their cognitive development and improves their social interaction.
The auditorium was packed with people who paid as much as $20 to hear the program, moderated by Tom Monahan, which was centered around Calhoun and Doyle talking about the lessons they have learned from sports.
Doyle spoke about coaching and playing overseas, learning about different cultures and types of people through the game of basketball.
“Sports are our introduction to diversity,” Doyle, who helped organize the World Scholar-Athlete Games, which will be held at UConn this summer.
Doyle’s most poignant comment during his address, which Calhoun made sure to remind him was twice as long as the Hall of Famer’s, was about learning of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination by watching a college roommate get told of the event.
“Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes,” he said, “…that stayed with me to this day.”
Calhoun’s lessons were mostly the ones he learned from working to take care of his family after his father died when he was 15. Calhoun put off school to earn money for his mother, then went back to college before being drafted by the Celtics and eventually becoming the coach at Northeastern, then UConn.
But the leader of the Huskies, who didn’t comment on the recent accusations levied by the NCAA regarding improper recruiting practices at UConn, spoke most eloquently about his personal experience with Autism. He saw a granddaughter open up by being drawn to music and watches with joy as his grandson performs the national anthem before every baseball game in the yard while reciting the team’s lineups.
There were speakers who talked specifically about Shepard Meadows’ affects on their children, but the main attraction was the basketball coach of the closest thing Connecticut has to a professional team. And after hearing him speak, it was clear that this was more than just another stop on his off-season tour.
“Obviously having two grandchildren who were on the spectrum, who of whom is just about off it and the other who is getting very close, it’s something near and dear to my heart, there’s no question,” Calhoun said.
To learn more about therapeutic riding or the “Raise the Roof” program,” visit Shepard Meadows website at www.shepardmeadows.org.