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Head coach Rick Clark and player Liam Hope take a break during practice at Corky Smith Gym in San Marcos. Hope recently started playing with Shooting Stars, a team designed to teach kids with special needs the game of basketball without the pressure. Photo by Stephanie Stang
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Basketball program allows players with special needs to shine

SAN MARCOS — A special needs basketball program based out of San Marcos continues to make every player feel like a star. The program is designed to teach kids the fundamental skills of basketball while making everyone involved feel like a winner.

When San Marcos resident Rick Clark and his wife started the Shooting Stars program, it was so his autistic son, Jacob could play basketball.  “He played the other sports, but he really liked basketball,” Clark said.  “When he was at school playing with his one-to-one aid — and we tried to do the regular basketball — but he couldn’t understand the competitive concept.”

That’s when Shooting Stars was started in coordination with the San Marcos Youth Basketball League. Children and adults with physical and mental challenges practice and compete in basketball games in a fun atmosphere for an entire season. “Our program is probably 75 to 80% autistic kids and there’s some kids with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. This biggest challenge for them is the social side,” Clark said. “The thing that a lot of these kids are lacking as far as opportunity is the ability to play on a team and the social interaction or building a relationship with someone.”

That’s why every player is paired with what’s called a buddy, who is typically a high school student  volunteering to serve as an unofficial mentor to the rules of the game. Buddies will usually walk or run the court with the player.

“I think it’s more beneficial for the buddies. They come away empathetic probably when they weren’t exposed to the world of special needs,” says mother Lindsay Kemper, who started bringing her son Liam recently after finding out about the program through a friend.

Friendship, support and comradery from other parents are key too to Shooting Stars’ success.

“It’s so comforting to know your child can play any sport they want to, and you can sit out and be on the sidelines and be a ‘typical’ parent. That’s the most satisfying thing about this and knowing that he is included but also that he knows that,” Kemper said.

Liam couldn’t walk until he was 4 or speak until he was 2 but today Kemper said, “he just finished a game and shot two baskets and unassisted with nothing.”

After a kidney transplant at the age 3, Mission Hills High School sophomore Ruben Minjares was also told by doctors to limit his activity. But mom Margaret Minjares says Shooting Stars allows him to be part of a team. “It’s just been a great program,” she said. “I still feel like he’s missing out, but he understands that when he sees a typical basketball team at the high school that he can’t do that, it’s too fast.”

Minjares started playing with Shooting Stars more than seven years ago and his mother says she has watched the program grow along with her son. It started with only eight players but now helps more than on 150.

Fourteen years later Clark’s son, Jacob, has practically outgrown the program and nearly coaching a team of his own. However, Clark doesn’t plan on leaving something he started anytime soon. “It would be hard to hand it off to someone,” he said. “I enjoy seeing the kids progress year after year.”

For more information about the Shooting Stars program, visit