With Support From Pitt, Special Olympics Basketball Tournament Continues to Grow

By: Liz Reid

The sounds of basketballs bouncing and tennis shoes squeaking filled the air at Fitzgerald Field House on the University of Pittsburgh campus on March 17, as hundreds of athletes prepared for the Special Olympics Three Rivers Region’s biggest event of the year. Fifty teams from across Southwestern Pennsylvania gathered to compete for a spot on the medals podium at the organization’s annual signature event, which has been hosted at Pitt since 1998. 

Shortly after the opening ceremony, tournament play got underway across the street at Trees Hall. It soon became clear that the available seating was inadequate to accommodate all the fans in attendance. 

“I have never seen this many people here before,” said Dr. Kevin Conley, Ph.D., associate dean of undergraduate studies at the Pitt School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. For 26 years, Conley has volunteered with his athletic training students to provide courtside medical assistance to athletes. Conley, who chairs Pitt’s department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition, is the glue cementing Pitt’s relationship with the Special Olympics.  

“It’s mushroomed now to where facilities management is involved, parking & transportation, all these different entities have stepped up and said, ‘We’ll do this for free,’” he said. 

For athletic training students, it’s an opportunity not only to put what they’re learning in the classroom into practice, but also to give back to the community. 

“It’s great to see people active, doing what they love, participating and being safe while they’re doing so,” said senior athletic training student Kamiya Abner. 

Athletic training students Kamiya Abner, Sophia Vukas and Wendy Ni talk with SHRS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Kevin Conley at the Special Olympics basketball tournament on March 17, 2024.

Conley has been an athletic trainer for 30 years, typically working with elite athletes, but says some of his most meaningful work has been done with Special Olympics athletes. He accompanied Team USA to the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece in 2011 and PyeongChang, South Korea in 2013. 

“When you spend one day working with Special Olympics athletes, you understand the importance of this work,” Conley said. “It’s just a joyful event every time they’re together.” 

Tommy Kreutzer plays with the Allegheny County North Stars, who took home the silver medal in their division on Sunday. Over the last ten years, Kreutzer has also played bocce ball, soccer, golf and floor hockey with Special Olympics.  

 “I’ve made a lot of friends through Special Olympics,” said Kreutzer, who just turned 30. “I also enjoy spending time with my dad. He is one of the coaches of our basketball team.” 

Participation in sports leads to better health outcomes for people with intellectual disabilities, a population already at greater risk of developing asthma, cardiovascular issues, and diabetes. Sports also support individuals’ motor function, social skills, mental health and self-esteem. 

 “We’re so grateful to Pitt for its support of this event,” said Andrew Fee, executive director of the Special Olympics Three Rivers Region. “The tournament’s continued growth would not have been possible without the university’s commitment to these athletes and Kevin’s tireless efforts to bring more partners on board.” 

Journalists interested in learning more can contact mediarelations@upmc.edu.