Last November, the D.C. Special Olympics basketball season began with training sessions and, according to basketball director Howard Barnes, a new emphasis.

"We've stressed skill improvement and growth this year," said Barnes.

The season ended recently with a two-day tournament at Howard University. Bill Daniels, the principal at the Kennedy Institute, believes the policy was effective for his students.

"They've come a long way this year," said Daniels. "They respect each other now."

The Kennedy Institute, an 85-student school serving the mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed in Northeast Washington, was one of eight teams in the double-elimination tournament.

In the finals of the Division II competition, the Kennedy Eagles took an early lead, but eventually lost to the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens Warriors in a game that's success was truly measured in more than the final score.

Tip-off was in Howard's Burr Gymnasium. And before the game, the intense players looked more than ready to carry out the Special Olympics oath, "Let me win. But if I cannot let me be brave in the attempt."

Kennedy's fans assembled in the section directly behind the bench and the cheerleaders -- Kennedy was one of two schools in the tournament with such supporters -- let loose with a few cheers.

Meanwhile, Kennedy leading scorer Eddie Riggs had other problems. "I need a Band-Aid," he said.

Said Barnes: "These athletes have the same needs as you and I. Sometimes, we just have to make sure we meet them."

To play in Division II of the Special Olympics, players must be less than 22 years old and be diagnosed as either mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed.

Those labels, however, were left outside the gym. "There is a misconception that these kids don't play by the rules," said volunteer Dolores Enriquez.

Throughout the day play was tight and fair. It was also clear that these athletes understood all the rules and were held closely in check by certified referees who called everything from technical fouls to goaltending.

Kennedy entered the game with an 8-0 record on the strength of its full-court pressure defense. Its offense relies on turnovers and fast-break opportunities, often releasing a man early to begin a break.

What makes Kennedy's success even more impressive is that the Eagles play outdoors when they can, but if the weather is not cooperative they practice without a basket.

"It's amazing that we've done this well without a gym," said Daniels.

"We stretch, weight train and work on ballhandling and passing," said first-year Coach Anthony Newman. "It's important to learn how to shoot, but it's more important to learn fundamentals."

Kennedy won only one game last season, but the won-loss record doesn't appear to be the only thing that has turned around.

"It's been a good year," said Newman. "A lot of people have noticed how the kids have grown emotionally."

Daniels also sees the program's benefits in major strides off the court.

"Some of the kids were a little rusty interacting with people," Daniels said.

Daniels credits basketball with giving many of the players a greater feeling of self-worth and a better understanding of team play and cooperation.

Evidence of Daniel's observations could be seen during timeouts when team and coach huddled arm-in-arm.

The Eagles also turned out to be one of tournament's best dressed teams, thanks to the generosity of Shirley Rogers, a teacher-assistant at the Kennedy Institute.

Rogers sold meals at Kennedy's night school and donated more than $1,000 so the team could purchase warmups, uniforms and school color (green and gold) socks.

The game was fast-paced and started off close.

Forward William Boney scored 14 points and led the DCARC Warriors to a 13-11 first-quarter lead.

But after a Darren Smith block and two turnovers, the Eagles took a 17-14 lead with 5:55 left in the second quarter and never trailed again.

Kennedy guard Andre Dean led all scorers with 16 points, including two three-pointers. Center Aaron Kinney and forward Todd Riley each scored eight points for the Eagles.

"We knew we were going to win," said guard Anthony Richardson.

After the game Riley said, "We're a little like the Lakers." And the team marched off to celebrate with juice and friends.