Winter is traditionally the time when high school students, their families, and friends trudge through the slush and snow to watch teenagers compete against rival schools on the basketball court. For some students, those with physical and intellectual disabilities, the chance to wear their school’s colors and don a uniform seems almost nonexistent.
For students at Thornton Academy, that changed two years ago when the school formed a unified basketball team. Unified sports, first organized by the Special Olympics, is a fast-growing initiative that brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team to compete. I can’t emphasize this enough – it brings people together.
The students with disabilities are called players and the students who do not have a disability are called partners. At any one time, a team may send three players and two partners to the court.
This past Monday, I watched as the team from Thornton was introduced over the school’s PA system and they competed against a team from Gorham. I watched as teachers, parents, administrators, grandparents, friends, and siblings seemed to collectively draw a breath and smile. Those who came to the game didn’t appear to care one way or another about the score, but they did care about the game and most passionately about the players.
I thought about those who came to the game after a particularly tough day and how this simple event might lift them in a way that otherwise might not be possible. I thought about a grandmother, sitting in a wheelchair waving a small banner as her grandson ran up and down the court.
Lost in thought, I wondered about the international student who traveled half-way around the world to come to school in the United States and the one team he most wanted to be part of was the Unified Basketball team.
I smiled as the cheering squad lined up in front of cardboard basketballs that contained the names and numbers of each player and partner, and I laughed as the players noticed them too and managed a quick wave. They too were enjoying the moment.
And of course, I thought about the players. Students who seemed to relish each tick of the clock as they played with their friends. Those same players understood it was still a game and at halftime, the players (both male and female) found a way to climb into the stands and sit with their families, maybe even have a quick snack before the second half began.
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