When the Special Olympics Montana basketball team from Billings returns this weekend after a week of competition at the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games in New Jersey, the 10 members' and three coaches' luggage will be just a little heavier.
They'll all be toting home bronze medals, earned after going 3-2 in pool and tournament play at the games, which bring together athletes from all over the country.
"It was just a great experience from the perspective of the athletes, not only to play in the games, but to feel the spirit of the Special Olympics," said Bob Nagy, the team's head coach.
During the team's bronze medal-round game against Northern California on Thursday, which Montana won 45-28, both squads exemplified that spirit, Nagy said.
Toward the end of the game, a handful of the California squad's players hadn't scored yet. With Special Olympics' focus on inclusion, teamwork and a friendly atmosphere, Nagy and Team Montana would clear the lanes to let those players score.
With about 40 seconds left and just one player not yet on the score sheet, one of Montana's better rebounders stood under the basket, let the player shoot, rebounded the ball and handed it back to him until he scored.
"It was the coolest thing," Nagy said. "The player that finally made his basket, when he scored, he was so excited that you would've thought he won the entire Olympics. Before the game even ended, their coach came over and shook our hands and said thank you."
The team arrived in New Jersey for the games on June 15 and, in between games, have met professional athletes and WWE wrestlers, taken tours of New Jersey and New York and met athletes and coaches from around the United States.
Bob Norbie, SOMT president and CEO, attended the team's first two games and said on Friday that the experience is one neither he nor the team will soon forget.
"It was a real privilege to be associated with such competition," he said. "The athletes had a remarkable experience, bringing together all 50 states in the spirit of sport and the spirit of inclusion and demonstrating to the world what's possible with a little help from some amazing fans."
About 3,800 athletes and 10,000 volunteers are attending the games, which wrap up this weekend.
Nagy said they've also received plenty of support from fans in Montana.
"The support from the Billings community and the Montana community has been overwhelming," he said. "The players and the coaches appreciate the hometown support."
Nagy said that the parents of one of the athletes on the team described the games as "a life changer" for their son, something with which the whole team agrees.
"It's an experience they will cherish and probably hold onto for the rest of their lives, down the line from player one to player 10," he said. "Even after our losses, when we got back to the hotel everybody was doing great. They're not ready to go home, but they're ready to sleep in their own beds. It's been something they'll never forget."