Sunday, January 26, 1997
Sports heroes with a real winning spirit

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

I was thinking about Dennis Rodman, which I hardly ever do. But each time I turn on the television, I have another chance to see him kick the photographer in what has delicately been referred to as the groin area.

Although it's unfair, I couldn't help comparing him to Andy Dragan, 13, a student at St. James School and my teammate at a Special Olympics competition.

Mr. Rodman is a professional athlete. This means he is paid buckets of money, has expensive shoes named after him and is as bad as he wants to be. He has more than 10,000 career rebounds and plays for the Chicago Bulls. This must be why they still want him on their team after he assaulted someone in public. In the groin area.

A juicy experience

Myself, I felt lucky to be on Ellen Schauer and Andy Dragan's team, as what the organization generously calls ''celebrity captain.'' Ellen, 14, is blonde, scrappy and outgoing. A student at Margaret B. Rost School, she never gave up on me, even when I was 0 for 3 in the softball pitch. She spit on my ball for good luck, and although that experience was a little juicier than I expected, it worked. I made the next toss through the strike zone.

Andy showed me how to hold the putter. When I sent the golf ball careening off the shoes of a very nice woman, who was nowhere near the artificial green, he told me I'd probably do better at bowling.

I didn't.

On top of that, I gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder just as he was releasing a basketball from the free throw line, surely causing him to miss. Kicking anybody, even me, was the farthest thing from his mind. He was giving pointers to another kid. On the other team.

This is not unusual. Special Olympics, competition for children and adults with mental and development disabilities, is always a wonderful surprise package of good sports.

Two years ago, a couple of runners from the same school trained together for the 100-meter sprint. On race day, they dazzled the cheering section when they reached for each other and crossed the finish line hand-in-hand.

Last year, the Hamilton County team was being badly beaten in the state co-ed basketball tournament. With 15 seconds left, the score was 45 to 10. A 5-foot 2-inch guard chased her 5-foot 9-inch opponent as though the game had just begun.

The tall kid looked up at the clock and saw three seconds left. His little guard still had her hands in the air, defending the basket. He passed her the ball. She dribbled down the court and made a layup.

The crowd roared.

Unfair to compare

Now, I do not want to give you the impression that there are not some fine athletes among the Special Olympics participants. They work hard, and as the June state summer games approach, they will spend countless hours training. This is an experience that is important to them, and I'm sure they enjoy winning.

But not at any cost.

Their oath is, ''Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.''

I like that. And I believe that I was very brave when I threw basketballs that didn't hit the net, the rim or the backboard. And I think I behaved myself when my bowling ball missed the head pin. But then, I had exceptional role models.

In case you like what Special Olympics can teach us, you might want to know that financial support comes from money donated by individuals, organizations, corporations and foundations. You might want to know that they need volunteers and a new computer. You might want to know that their telephone number is 271-2606.

You can also get a listing of upcoming events. Sectional basketball will be played here next month. I promise you that you'll see some athletes to admire. If you run into Andy - he's tall with brown hair and a lovely smile - tell him I've been working on my putting.

And I know it's not fair, really, to compare Dennis Rodman to Andy Dragan.

Mr. Rodman is clearly outclassed.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.