One shot. Two shots. Three shots.
On his fourth shot, Special Olympics Unified Basketball player Mauri dropped it through the hoop, sending hundreds of combined fans, families and students into a frenzy on Friday night at Tamalpais (Tam) High School in Mill Valley, Calif.
“I felt like Michael Jordan,” exclaimed Mauri, donning a new Nike headband and kicks to complement his San Rafael jersey.
Mauri was one of the Special Olympics athletes taking part in the first Unified Basketball game of the season on Friday, which brings together people with and without physical/intellectual disabilities to play on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle – that training and competing together is a quick path to friendship, understanding and inclusion. Unified Sports is especially impactful in schools, where general education students are integrated with students in the special education program in a fun and active setting. Unified Sports is a way for people – and students – to interact with other populations with a common bond and team goal.
“I’ve seen a growth in confidence across the board,” said Michael Lovejoy, special education teacher and head coach for the Unified Basketball team at Tam. “It gives these students the sense that they are part of a strong community. That they’re not on an island.”
The 12-minute game between San Rafael and Tam was one of three Unified Basketball games across Marin County on Friday evening, each scheduled in primetime between the women’s and men’s varsity games. The showcase provided a unique opportunity to highlight Unified Basketball to a large, captive audience and bring more attention to the positive impacts that it can have on both the students in special education and general education programs.
Other games on Friday included San Marin High School hosting Terra Linda High School and Drake High School hosting Redwood High School – a thrilling game that ended on a last-second three-pointer by Special Olympics athlete Nic, sending fans and students from both schools flooding the court in celebration.
Special Olympics also made a brief public announcement and explanation of the program at each game; and the Athlete Oath was recited. Unified Basketball team lineups are comprised of three students in special education and two students in general education on the court together at a time.
At Tam, the players were introduced individually on the PA system and entered the court through a line of cheerleaders from each school, adding to the all-star experience. Varsity players from the Tam and San Rafael teams cheered on the athletes, giving high-fives and loud support throughout the entire game.
Tam Athletic Director Christina Amoroso hopes that Unified Sports will continue to grow throughout Marin County – and beyond.
“Mr. Lovejoy has done an amazing job of getting his students out within the general population and making them a visible part of the school community,” she said. “This type of inclusion has become the norm here.”
Along with impacting the students with special needs, Lovejoy added that he has noticed a positive influence on the general education students on his team as well.
“It changes what they do in their daily lives,” said Lovejoy, on the general education players. “They are filled with joy. The little problems that they may have had before become just little problems; which goes against the high school-age stereotype. Now we’ve seen on campus that students, especially those in the stands for these games, are greeting the athletes in the hallway – ‘Hey, great game!’ – and then later coming by my classroom to see how they can get involved.”
Unified Basketball has grown in the Marin County Athletic League (MCAL) to six total teams this season. Unified Sports is offered in a variety of different sports with varying age ranges and levels, both within schools and in the community. Follow on Facebook and Twitter @SONorCal and Instagram @SpecialOlympicsNCA for updates throughout the season and check out the website for more information.