Former New York Knicks strength and conditioning coach Greg Brittenham has brought his talent – and his compassion – to the Twin City.
Brittenham, who helped groom professional athletes for two decades, relocated to Winston-Salem after retiring from the NBA just under a year ago to accept a position as director of Athletic Performance for Wake Forest University’s basketball program. The city is already benefitting from the Boulder, Colo.-native’s connections. Brittenham teamed up with pro baller Michael “Mighty Mike” Simmel of the Harlem Wizards, an entertainment basketball team, last week to host Bounce Out the Stigma, a free basketball camp for kids with physical, mental and/or emotional challenges. Attendees suffer from everything from autism and childhood diabetes to self-esteem issues and attention deficit disorder.
“They have every bit as much passion for basketball, and they’re often excluded from other camps because of their special needs, so we figured, why not (host the camp)?” Brittenham commented. “We just want to provide that opportunity and basketball’s a great conduit to try to teach fundamental movement patterns.”
Simmel, who was a was a Knicks ball boy when he first met Brittenham, hosted similar camps in his homestate of New Jersey. This year’s camp, held on the WFU campus from July 23-27, drew 70 youths, who were trained in the basics of the game like dribbling and jump-shooting.
The program was staffed by a team of volunteers that included Brittenham’s wife, Luann, and their two adult children. Though their is no compensation for their hard work, Brittenham, who has been actively involved with a similar program in Alaska known as Challenge Life for the last five years, said the volunteers are richly remunerated for their efforts.
“The greatest reward to this is when you see them apply what they’ve learned, or when they come up and give you a hug and tell you how much they appreciate it,” he said of the campers, who ranged in age from eight to 20. “What’s different about our camp is we take the time to work on those fundamental movement patterns, and we just see unbelievable improvement in their skills, their focus, their concentration, their cooperation, and that’s a tremendous reward.”
Twelve year-old Javon Grant gave the camp high marks. Grant, a rising sixth grader at Southeast Middle School, said he made some friends at camp and best of all, nailed down the basics of basketball, a sport he hopes to play professionally someday.
“My mom signed me up for it because I told her I want to be a basketball player,” said Javon, who has ADHD. “It’s fun.”
WFU sophomore Lauryn Webster served as a volunteer coach with the program. Webster, a center on the Women’s Basketball squad, said the children were a source of inspiration for her.
“Their confidence amazed me,” said the Marietta, Ga.-native. “Some of them use canes to walk, and they’re still out there going hard. It’s so awesome to watch.” For Simmel, the desire to help youngsters cope with their differences is deeply personal. He was diagnosed with epilepsy at age two. As a youngster, the problem was so severe that Simmel was forced to wear a helmet. At 16, Simmel suffered a grand mal seizure while at a basketball camp, and said the camp leaders tried to send him home because of it. His parents had to fight to allow him to finish the session, Simmel said.
“I always dealt with people trying to put limits on me,” said the SUNY Purchase alumnus. “The big thing I tell these kids is, ‘Your limits don’t define you – you define your limits.’ They can do whatever they want to do.”
With the help of a daily medicine regimen, Simmel has managed to keep his seizures under control for the last three years, but says nothing can erase his experiences as a youth with a disability. He has even written a book about his life, “Mighty Mike Bounces Back.” For Simmel, being able to help children who suffer as he did from the pressure of stigmas and ill conceived notions about their abilities is a dream come true.
“This was a dream,” he said of the camp, which will be staged in New Jersey later this month. “This is my vision come to reality. My hope is to take it nationally.” Since founding the Bounce Out the Stigma Project, Inc. in 2005, Simmel, who has spent the last decade with the Wizards, has become a staunch advocate for children with all kinds of disabilities.
“Some people say it’s a curse,” he said of being epileptic. “I think that that curse is a blessing. It’s made me the man I am today.”