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Article updated: 11/22/2013 6:26 PM

NU basketball gives voice to autism awareness

Northwestern women’s basketball coach Joe McKeown has done a lot of raise awareness of autism. Every year he raises support at one of Northwestern’s basketball games, and this time they’ll play DePaul on Dec. 1 to support the Autism Speaks organization.

Northwestern women's basketball coach Joe McKeown has done a lot of raise awareness of autism. Every year he raises support at one of Northwestern's basketball games, and this time they'll play DePaul on Dec. 1 to support the Autism Speaks organization.

 

Associated Press

DePaul guard Megan Rogowski, left, is one of several former high school stars from the Chicago area who will play in the Dec. 1 Autism Awareness game between Northwestern and DePaul.

DePaul guard Megan Rogowski, left, is one of several former high school stars from the Chicago area who will play in the Dec. 1 Autism Awareness game between Northwestern and DePaul.

 

Associated Press

Former New Trier star Maggie Lyon (25) of Northwestern will lead the Wildcats against DePaul on Dec. 1. Lyon earned Freshman of the Year honors in the Big Ten last season.

Former New Trier star Maggie Lyon (25) of Northwestern will lead the Wildcats against DePaul on Dec. 1. Lyon earned Freshman of the Year honors in the Big Ten last season.

 

Associated Press

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By Patricia Babcock McGraw

It was an especially proud moment for Northwestern women's basketball coach Joe McKeown last spring when his son Joey graduated from high school.

One of the main reasons McKeown left a thriving program at George Washington six years ago to take on the struggling Wildcats was so his son Joey could take advantage of some of the highly rated programs in Illinois for children with autism.

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"Joey worked through this program at New Trier and he did a great job in graduating," McKeown said. "Now he's in a program in Evanston called Have Dreams. It's kind of a transition for older kids with autism into the real world, setting them up with jobs in the community and things like that."

Have Dreams has been a blessing for Joey, but in many communities, autism programs aren't as elaborate or as comprehensive, particularly for older kids.

"Most of the funding goes to the younger kids," McKeown said.

So for each of the last five years, McKeown has earmarked one of his team's home games as an Autism Awareness game. The Wildcats not only invite autistic kids and their families to the game, they also raise money for the organization Autism Speaks by donating a portion of their ticket sales.

This year's Autism Awareness game is Dec. 1 at Welsh-Ryan Arena against crosstown rival DePaul (2 p.m.). So, not only will that game showcase Chicago's two best women's college basketball teams (and a lot of homegrown talent), it will also put the spotlight on a great cause that is near-and-dear to many.

Besides coach McKeown, two Northwestern players have also been closely affected by autism. Guard Meghan McKeown is Joe's daughter and Joey's sister. And forward Alex Cohen has an older brother, Aaron, who has autism. His condition has left him unable to speak.

"Our players have really done a lot to get involved. They've also done a walk for autism at Soldier Field," Joe McKeown said. "Northwestern's also done a great job of working with us, and UnderArmour has gotten behind us as a corporate sponsor for this fundraiser.

"It's been a great thing for our program. It's really nice to see these kids with autism and their families get to enjoy a night out. Sometimes it's hard for them to do that. We try to have a lot going for them, like face-painting and all these activities. We try to make it something really fun."

Basketball fans from the area will have fun keeping track of all the Chicago-area talent on the floor between Northwestern and DePaul.

Northwestern guard Maggie Lyon, last year's Big Ten freshman of the year, is from New Trier, while McKeown graduated from Loyola. La'Terria Taylor and Tessa Haldes are city kids from Von Steuben and Whitney Young, respectively.

At DePaul, former Hersey star and 3-point shooting whiz Megan Rogowski (22 points) had a big game against Northwestern last year. Starting guard Chanise Jenkins is from Whitney Young. Guard Centrese McGee is from Thorton Fractional North, Megan Podkowa is from Glenview and graduated from Trinity and Kelsey Smith is a fifth-year senior from St. Charles North. Freshman Meri Bennett-Swanson is from Vernon Hills.

"It's a game where we can really showcase Chicago basketball," said McKeown, whose Wildcats lost 89-61 to DePaul last year. "With the success DePaul has had and the success we've had, this is really good for our area."

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

•Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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