Project UNIFY is a Special Olympics program that brings students with and without disabilities together to form a unified sports team. The first sport part of the initiative is basketball.
BSHS is one of 12 area schools participating in the pilot program, including: Averill Park, Columbia, Glens Falls, Guilderland, Mechanicville, Mohonasen, Queensbury, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady, Shenendehowa, and South Colonie.
“They want to participate in this program because it’s real basketball,” said Nate Johnson, Director of Program with Special Olympics New York. “We’re just asking kids to play basketball together.”
But don’t think for a second that the rules and referee calls are lenient. Program organizers said aside from basic modifications such as the removal of the shot clock, and requiring every player on the roster have at least 8 minutes of playing time per game, the same rules apply and are enforced.
“They’re shooting foul shots from the foul line, if they travel, it’s called a travel,” said Johnson. “If they double dribble, then it’s a double dribble. Contacts and fouls are all called as well. They’re not called any more loosely or any more sensitively than they would be at a high school game.”
Special Olympics teams are often thought as having a roster full of special needs athletes, but the game changes a bit when part of the team is made up of general education students, or “partner athletes.”
“Coaches look at the athlete pool that they have for players with disabilities and assess their ability level,” said Johnson. “Then what they try to do is match partner athletes to the team as closely to that ability level as possible. Our ideal scenario is when you look out on the court, you aren’t able to tell who the athlete is and who the partner is.”
The Ballston Spa High School Unified Basketball Team has mastered that seamless unity on the court. Widely regarded as one of the top teams in the program, Scotties coach John Lea, attributes it to their hard work and dedication to the game.
“These kids are having a blast,” said Coach Lea. “They have the opportunity to get on the basketball court and live out their dream in high school. I’m excited for them.
Coach Lea also serves as the Varsity Basketball coach for BSHS and has been working with athletes for the last seven years. He said he uses the same coaching methods for the unified team as he does for the varsity team.
“I treat them the same exact way, no different,” said Lea. “These guys are having fun. They’re working hard, running drills, we preach defense and the guys love to play defense. Sometimes I can’t slow them down (laughs) so all in all, it’s a great experience and I’m happy to be a part of it and try to get them where they need to be.”
Some players are already thinking ahead to where they’ll be next season. BSHS junior, Carlos Brito, said he’s definitely trying out for the unified team again and working hard for his basketball career after high school.
“I’m going to be a senior next year and I’m going to try to win as many games as we can,” said Brito. “My dream is to go to college and play for a college team and then work my way up to a professional team and play in the NBA.”
Sophomore Jaybriel De Hoyos shares Brito’s love for basketball and said the players celebrate the ups and motivate each other through the downs but in the end, everyone has fun.
“We’re a team so we try to motivate each other to keep doing better instead of thinking negative and putting our heads down,” said De Hoyos. “We try to lift each other’s spirits and take it one game at a time.”
The first year of the Unified Sports initiative will conclude on Saturday, May 31st in a celebratory game at the Glens Falls Civic Center.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics have already begun developing strategies for next year’s Unified Sports program. Both organizations are working to expand the program to lower Westchester County, Hudson Valley or Western New York.
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