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Unified Sports initiative makes everyone a winner on the basketball court

Visiting players file into the Eden Central High School gym about game time, duffle bags in hand.

There’s no trash talk, or sizing up the competition, and the home coach warmly greets them on this last regular game of the season.

“Hi guys, you made it!” Eden Coach Jennifer Carriero said. “You’re going to sit over there, girls locker room is right there, and the boys locker room is right on the other side.”

A few minutes of shooting practice, and it’s time for the tipoff at center court between the Frontier Falcons and Eden Raiders.

It takes 1 minute, 50 seconds before the first basket of the game is made by Justin Thompson of Eden. He pumps his arms in the air as fans from both teams cheer.

They’re not only the first points in the game, it is Justin’s first basket of the season. He had been hoping for a three-pointer, but he’s happy with two points, the first of his high school career.

The players on these teams haven’t played basketball before this spring. Many have never been on an athletic team before.

Students from six area high schools, boys and girls, regardless of ability or disability, are playing basketball in the inaugural season of Unified Sports in Section VI. The inclusive sports program is the result of a partnership between the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics.

Each team has three athletes – students who are differently abled – and two partners on the floor at one time. The partners are allowed to be student athletes from other sports, except basketball.

They play regulation high school boys rules with four eight-minute quarters, but there is no shot clock, and traveling rules are liberal.

Everyone, from the players and coaches, to the referees and parents, leaves happy.

“You will smile for four quarters,” said Frontier Athletic Director Richard Gray. “After the first game my cheeks hurt.”

Parents are excited over the chance to cheer for their kids, and it gives them a connection with other parents in the bleachers. It’s also a welcome change from meetings with the Committee on Special Education to go over their children’s Individual Education Plan, or IEP.

“I am so thrilled with this program. It’s helped my son come out of his shell,” said Darlene Thompson, Justin’s mother. “He’s smiling. He’s interacting with children he would never have interacted with before, he’s getting the experience that most special-needs children never get.”

Carriero calls the games “controlled chaos,” because none of the players have experience in playing basketball. While there’s still the occasional drive to the wrong basket, the players have shown a lot of progress since the season started.

“Some kids didn’t even want to play,” she said. “They wouldn’t talk to anybody. Now, they’re making baskets, saying ‘when’s our game?’ ”

“I have kids who are afraid of the ball, I have kids who just want the ball,” said Frontier Coach Don Heppner. “I have kids who tell the other team, ‘Don’t take the ball away from me.’ ”

He said there’s a lot of transition basketball, and not too many set plays. But players are guarding more now, and standing by the basket to grab rebounds.

Coaches have seen a lot of growth in all of the players.

“What has been really neat is how well the students with disabilities and students without disabilities have really come together and become friends,” Gray said.

Allison Winiecki, an Eden senior who is going to Germany next year on an exchange program, said in addition to improving her dribbling skills, she has met new friends.

“It’s such a neat experience. Damien comes up and says ‘Hi’ to me every morning in the hallway, Kyle gives me a big smile, Justin even smiles at me. It’s something that never happened before, and I can say, ‘Yeah, I know these kids, I was on a team with them,’ ” she said.

“It’s another connection in the hallway I don’t think they ever had, and I never had, so it’s something really special.”

Annmarie Engle has seen a lot of growth in her son, Noah, who makes a lot of three-point shots for Frontier, and who now plays hoops at home with a buddy from the team.

“I think they have more confidence, because they’re given the opportunity to play a sport where previous experiences have been if you have a disability you could be, like, the assistant coach, but they wouldn’t play you,” she said. “Now they’re able to play for the entire game, which is nice for them.”

“I like being on the team, it’s fun,” Noah said. “It’s a unified game and everybody who has a lot of disabilities is able to play.”

The final tournament with all six teams is Thursday at Lockport High School.

Section VI Executive Director Timm Slade said more schools will join Frontier, Eden, Starpoint, Lockport, Akron and Newfane in offering the program next year. If there are enough schools, the section may have a northern and southern division in unified basketball. The state also is looking to add bowling, but he does not know when.

During the game there are struggles for the ball, but everyone stopped in place when Madison Fortuna of Frontier shot a basket.

“Go, Maddie,” her mother called.

The ball bounced off the glass back at her, and she shot again. And again. And she moved closer and tried again. And she made it on the fifth try. And then the players started moving again, and parents in the stands cheered.

“We appreciate everything the districts have done to make it truly unified,” said Sharon Fortuna, Madison’s mother.

“Each student has learned so much. There’s camaraderie between peers. They are truly, honestly, peers and friends, and that’s what’s so cool about it all,” she said.

Darlene Thompson likes that teams keep score, and there’s a winner and loser, because that’s part of life.

Before he started playing basketball, her son, Justin, 18, was adamant that he did not want to return to school in the fall. Students can go to school until they are 21. But because of this program, he wants to come back next year.

“He’s got goals now that he didn’t have before,” she said. “They’re not just kids with IEPs.”

And about the score of the game, one team had more points than the other one, but no one cared which team it was.