Newtown youth sports: a new normal

A summer basketball camp gives kids a chance to just play

Updated: August 16, 2013, 2:25 PM ET
By Isabelle Khurshudyan | ESPN.com

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Everything stops for the shrill beeping. The sound of basketballs bouncing grows fainter until the gym is silent.

One hundred and three campers calmly look to their counselors for instruction. Matt Murphy is less calm, running out of the gym to find the source of the fire alarm that is disrupting his basketball camp.

"Form one line behind me," one coach finally says. He should have known that wouldn't work. Some kids run past him and straight for the door. What is supposed to be one line looks like one cluster with the coach somewhere in the middle. Before the confusion can be sorted, Matt returns.

Everything's OK. It is just a test. As you were.

Matt's oldest daughter, Shea, 10, returns to her dribbling station, beating a few boys in her leg of a relay. His other daughter, Moira, 6, is on a different court, talking with her friends.

On the surface, nothing unusual is happening. There was a fire alarm and kids reacted in the way kids react -- waiting for directions and then struggling to follow them. But this is Newtown, Conn., and even something as innocent as a fire alarm test is cause for concern.

Eight months after 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary with a gun and killed 26 defenseless people -- 20 of whom were between the ages of 6 and 7 -- Newtown is trying to transition from its state of shock and grief to normal, or whatever that means for now.

But in a town where every other car has a green ribbon and every storefront has a green sign that reads, "We are Sandy Hook. We choose love," what isn't a reminder of the tragedy? How do you balance wanting to go back to the way things used to be, while respecting the families who do not have that option?

Within the walls of the Newtown Youth Academy Sports & Fitness Center gym, those questions are muted. A week at the Murphy Basketball Camp -- run by brothers Matt and Mike Murphy every summer in Newtown for the past five years -- is still just part of the yearly routine for some families.

"Is everyone having fun?" Mike Murphy asks a group of campers. "That's the most important thing."

On that day

Matt Murphy and his wife, Deirdre, who live in Sandy Hook, wanted to go Christmas shopping on Dec. 14. They were going to surprise their three children with a new play area in the basement.

The funeral for Matt's grandmother was the day before, a month after she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Now Christmas was fast approaching and the Murphys were behind on their shopping. Matt took the day off from teaching math at a high school in Carmel, N.Y. Their oldest son, Keenan, 11, got on the bus first for fifth grade at Reed Intermediate School. Shea and Moira got on their Sandy Hook Elementary bus at 8:30 a.m., so Matt and Deirdre went straight to their car after the girls were dropped off at the bus stop. IKEA is 40 minutes away and Moira's kindergarten bus would return at 12:15 p.m., so time was precious.

[+] EnlargeKeenan, Deirdre, Matt, Shea and Moira Keenan
Courtesy Murphy FamilyThe Murphy family -- Keenan, Deirdre, Matt, Shea and Moira -- has lived in Newtown, Conn., for the past 12 years. All three children are involved in sports, and Matt is a volunteer assistant coach for the Newtown High girls' basketball team.

The texts started coming in the store. Something was going on at Sandy Hook Elementary, and it was bad.

Matt and Deirdre eventually found each other and raced to their car, kicking themselves. If they had not gone shopping, they would be only five minutes away. By the time they were halfway home, ambulances kept whizzing by them. Deirdre was sobbing. Matt got behind an ambulance and drove as fast as he could.

Shea was in her fourth-grade art class when the entire school heard its beloved principal killed, because the intercom was on. She hid in the closet, praying to her great-grandmother who just died. In Moira's class at the end of the first-grade hallway, her teacher instructed Moira to hide at her cubby, then read stories to the scared children. Since Moira has an October birthday, Matt and Deirdre decided to keep her back one year rather than have her be one of the younger kids in first grade. She had attended preschool with six of the 20 first graders who were killed.

When Matt and Deirdre were just minutes away from the school, a family friend called to tell them that Shea was with her. She appeared to have forgotten the Murphys had a second child at Sandy Hook.

"What about Moira? What about Moira?" Deirdre cried. The phone disconnected before the Murphys could get an answer. The callback came after a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity to them. Moira was OK, too.

The students ran from the school to a nearby firehouse, now blocked off by police. Deirdre and Matt left their car on the side of the road in a line with other cars and ran three-quarters of a mile with other parents as helicopters circled overhead. The kids were organized by grade inside the firehouse. Shea was shaken, still in shock like everyone else who did not know what happened. Moira was just happy to see her parents.

Shea had evacuated the school through the back door, but Moira and her class were led out in a straight line through the front entrance where Lanza had shot his way in. Police officers formed a wall around the bodies of the dead principal and school psychologist in the hallway so the children would not see. Moira was told to shield her eyes with one hand and put the other hand on the shoulder of the classmate in front of her.

[+] EnlargeMatt, Deirdre, Matt, Moira and Shea Murphy
Courtesy Murphy FamilyMatt, Deirdre, Moira and Shea made matching T-shirts for a Taylor Swift concert at MetLife Stadium in July.

But after stepping on something, Moira peeked. "I was stepping on bombs," she told her parents that night. Confused, they asked more questions, but as they pressed her, she grew more upset because she had not followed instructions. Moira's teacher told Matt and Deirdre that she stepped on empty shell casings.

The Murphys stayed at the firehouse for about an hour to help. Some kids' parents hadn't arrived yet, and some parents hadn't found their kids yet. A law enforcement official announced that anyone who had been united with their child should leave. "That's when we were all kind of like, 'There are still so many people there that couldn't leave,'" Deirdre said. "That was awful."

Shea and Moira went to their parents' bedroom as soon as they got home, getting under the covers and staying there. Deirdre and Matt fielded visits from the neighbors, friends and family coming to their home to make sure everyone was OK. Matt, Mike and their dad then went to Reed Intermediate School to get Mike's son, Liam, and Keenan. Reed had been in lockdown during the Sandy Hook shooting, and once Keenan discovered something bad was happening at his sisters' school, he nervously rocked in the corner of the classroom. Once home, the adults did not want the kids to watch the news, but turned it on downstairs where the kids would not hear it. They knew which adults had died at that point, but were not sure which children were among the victims.

As soon as everyone left, Matt and Deirdre discussed what they would tell the kids. They had as much information as they would get that day, which still was not very much. A list of the dead had not been released, but they did know Shea's friend's little sister, Josephine Gay, would be on that list.

The family gathered. Moira and Shea told their parents what they saw and heard. Deirdre and Matt told their children it was over and everything was going to be OK. The kids were scared the shooter was not finished. Then the parents broke the news about Josephine.

Why would someone do this? Shea asked.

"I mean, I still can't answer that really," Deirdre said. "But that night I remember saying, 'There are people that just don't feel love like we do and they're sick, and evil has a way of getting into them.' They just kind of looked at us like we were crazy. We had nothing better to say. We had nothing to give to them except just lots of hugs and kisses."

A green ribbon

"I made this for you," a fellow camper tells Shea, handing her a clay green ribbon on a white string she had made a few days earlier. The gift had been forgotten, but digging through her backpack for something else, the girl found it.

Shea holds the ribbon in her hand, examining it briefly. She runs over to her bag and puts it away for now. Lunch break at camp is almost over and she wants to play in a basketball hot potato game with her friends.

Crafts were comforting for Shea after Dec. 14. She made green-and-white bracelets and green ribbons, anything she could with the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary. Shea used duct tape to make a large bag for Marie Gay after her little sister died.

[+] EnlargeShea and Moira Murphy meet Maya Moore
Courtesy Murphy FamilyWhen WNBA and former University of Connecticut star Maya Moore held a clinic at the Newtown Youth Academy, Shea, left, was excited to meet her because she has a life-size poster of Moore in her room and looks up to her.

The weeks after the shooting were difficult times for the Murphy children. They did not want to be alone anymore. Sleeping was on and off, as were the nightmares. The family's first time out in public was when they went to mass at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church the day after the shooting. Deirdre cried the entire time. When the family got home, she got on the computer and saw the official list of those killed in the shooting for the first time. She started sobbing again.

As she and Matt read the names, the kids said something nice about each person. Shea noted how empty the school bus would be now. Eight of the kids who were killed used to ride the bus with them every morning. The kids cried more that night than any other.

The family's next venture out of the house was less taxing. The Newtown Youth Academy, a recreational complex with a turf field, several basketball courts and a fitness center, opened its doors in the week after the shooting. All organized sporting events were either canceled or moved to the following week, so the facility was one of the few places the kids could gather and play team sports.

"I didn't really want to go, to be honest with you," Deirdre said. "Because I knew what was going to happen. The kids were going to go find friends, and I was going to be against a wall with moms crying. And that's exactly what happened, but how happy the kids were made it OK."

Shea reunited with Marie Gay, and the two played soccer, laughing and playing like their whole world had not been turned upside down days earlier. A manager at the youth academy, Cody Foss, brought his Sandy Hook kids during that week, too. Sports were the distraction from the constant reminders and reflections that were only beginning for the town.

"I think for them, there was no deeper message or meaning right away," Foss said. "They just saw a bunch of their friends playing. And that was it. That to me means it worked."

The youth academy, which is less than five minutes away from Sandy Hook Elementary, was not a total haven. A weight dropping in the fitness center would frighten people. But it couldn't compare to a loud noise in a school, where some kids would be so shaken, they would be sent home for the day.

Some loud noises, however, proved comforting. Jeff Tolson had several surviving Sandy Hook first graders and siblings of slain children in his flag football program a week after the shooting. The Newtown High School guidance counselor did not change anything on that day, keeping the loud and abrasive music on the entire time.

"It was not an issue," Tolson said. "It was pretty crazy. The correspondence I got back after that day was that it was really healing. I got a lot of people saying their kid hadn't been able to sleep, but after that night of just running around and sweating, as silly as it sounds, they slept that night. I thought that was pretty worthwhile. I'm glad we did it.

"At the time, I was torn. Is it too soon?"

The Murphys were also torn. When the Newtown High School girls' basketball team decided to play the first game after the shooting a week later, Matt -- a volunteer assistant coach -- and the family had a discussion about it. Did it feel wrong to go to the game? Was it OK that some things were going back to normal?

It was Shea who spoke up and said she wanted to go and cheer the team on. It felt right.

"They went," Matt said. "That's what they do. Anytime we have a game, especially when it's at home, the kids go to the game to cheer. I think it helped get things back to normal."

Structure and routine

The Murphy Basketball Camp has leagues for different age divisions, but kids can opt to move up or down a league at the start of camp to play with the appropriate level of competition. Shea chose to move up to the league Matt is in charge of. But she is now playing against older boys, so Matt wants her to be more aggressive.

You wanted to move up, so either play better or I will move you back down, Matt sternly tells her after her first game. Shea nods, high-fiving her friend on her way to the bench.

"She's very athletic," Matt said. "She can't just go through the motions."

[+] EnlargeKeenan, Shea and Moira Murphy
Courtesy Murphy FamilyEvery summer, Keenan, Shea and Moira participate in all three sessions of the Murphy Basketball Camp, which has been in the family for 34 years.

Sports were all about going through the motions for Shea and other Sandy Hook kids after the shooting. The structure and routine were distractions, something to do for a few hours every week. Shea did not like the new school Sandy Hook kids started going to in January and longed for the familiarity of her old school. Sports were still familiar.

The way Matt coached Shea did not change. He never hesitated to pull her aside and tell her she should be playing better, like he does at camp. Even though Shea struggled more than Moira and Keenan, often becoming withdrawn, her parents thought too much coddling would keep things from feeling normal.

"If all of a sudden rules change and now there's six outs to an inning and not three to make it so you're coddling them, it's going to be confusing," said Wanda Fremont, the medical director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinic at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. "Even though people say they don't want rules or this and that, they need them. I think that's comforting."

But even sports could be a painful reminder. Every new opponent for the fourth-grade girls' basketball team Matt coaches and Shea plays on wanted to do some tribute for the victims. There were always moments of silence, shirts exchanged and opposing teams wearing Sandy Hook colors. They were kind and appreciated gestures, but what does a town do if it doesn't want its identity forever tied to that?

Newtown became so inundated with sports groups and celebrities wanting to do special events (the Knicks, Boston Bruins and soccer stars like Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan were just a few who came) that First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra finally announced in July that Newtown would refrain from hosting any more groups not already scheduled.

The special events created some conflict within the town. On one hand, kids who were in the school and survived that day were able to have fun and forget about their grief for a few hours. On the other hand, were these events really benefiting the families most affected by the tragedy?

"I think the town as a whole is kind of getting to that," Foss said. "In the very beginning, at least this is my opinion, the idea was to flood these kids with as many positive things as we possibly can just because we didn't know what else to do, and we needed something other than the horrible experience they'd had."

Just as sports started as distraction, so did attending the clinics and special events for the Murphys. Shea has a life-size Maya Moore poster in her room, so when the WNBA star had a clinic at the Newtown Youth Academy, Shea was so excited she couldn't speak. When Deirdre suggested they take a picture together, Shea was in shock.

Shea and Matt went to the Super Bowl in New Orleans, where she sang the national anthem with the Sandy Hook choir and Jennifer Hudson. Before the Super Bowl, Matt told Shea she could pick who they'd root for and they would buy that team's jerseys to wear.

She did not hesitate. The Ravens, Josephine Gay's favorite team, would win because Josephine was with them.

Next steps

The final day of camp is the special competition day. Campers are matched up within their leagues in one-on-ones, free throw shooting, 3-on-3s and hot shot. The day ends with a camp-wide contest of knockout -- a game where players are in a line and the objective is for the trailing player to score before the leading player. Once that competition has been whittled down to the last 10, kids sit together behind the basket and wait to see who the champion will be this year, gasping and cheering as the field gets narrower.

[+] EnlargeShea Murphy
Courtesy Murphy FamilyShea sang in the Sandy Hook choir with Jennifer Hudson at the Super Bowl. She rooted for the Baltimore Ravens in memory of Josephine Gay, who was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. The Gays are Ravens fans.

After months of sports for the sake of distraction, kids are back to just being kids, at least in this setting.

"You remember how it was after Sept. 11 driving? Being on the road, everyone was kind of nice for a while and then people started cutting each other off again or whatever," said Mark Gerace, a physical education teacher and volunteer coach. "It was kind of like that in basketball here, where the first couple games it was calmer. And then a referee made a bad call, so you were going to say something to the ref. It kind of got back, and that's OK."

The Murphys began to pull away from the special events around the same time the town did. But the Murphy Basketball Camp that has been in the family for 34 years is just part of the routine, one of the few things in Newtown that happened pretty much the same way before and after the shooting.

While sports have settled into Newton's new normal, the town as a whole is still taking baby steps. The Fourth of July brought concerns of how children would handle the noise of fireworks in the area. Words are still chosen carefully; "Moving on" sounds too callous, while "trying to heal" is more appropriate. Neither one is happening overnight.

"At the one-year anniversary, who knows how we're all going to feel? I feel like there's probably going to be a lot of stuff kicked up again just marking the anniversary," Deirdre said. "I don't know how much we're going to want to do with the kids or what they're going to want to do. That's sort of our next steps -- the start of school and then the one-year anniversary. Then just go from there."

Camp adjourns after an award ceremony and kids flock to get their lunchboxes before finding their parents. There will be two more weeklong sessions of the camp, but only a handful of kids do more than one session. The Murphy kids are in the handful.

Matt begins packing up his things as Moira, Shea and Keenan continue to play. The gym has grown quieter, as all of the basketballs have been put away except for the one in Keenan's hand.

"You want to play?" he asks Shea.

No, she says. It's time to go. They'll be back next week.

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