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COMMENTARY

Column: Potential funding cuts behind them, unified sports teams soar

Sean Kirst

Kevin Krause had this dream. In the 1980s, he was a student-athlete at Lockport High School, where he was a co-captain in track and field. Joined by his buddies, he used to walk around the old Lockport Mall wearing his letter jacket, a high school totem Kevin could never bring himself to throw away.

Years later, he married his wife, Cori Eick Krause. He explained to her why he kept the jacket. Kevin looked forward to a day when she could take his photo alongside their children, wearing similar jackets of their own.

They raised three sons. Wednesday, Kevin and Cori watched as their younger boys, Matt and Connor, ran up and down the basketball court for Newfane High School during an eight-team high school unified sports team scrimmage at Starpoint.

On Kevin’s 53rd birthday, he pointed to Matt's letter jacket, hanging on a chair near the bench – as lasting a birthday gift as Kevin could imagine.

Almost 18 years ago, when Matt was born, Kevin thought such a thing could never come to be.

Matt has Down syndrome. At the time of his birth, no varsity sports existed tailored specifically toward including youths with disabilities. That changed six years ago in Western New York, when Doug Ames, Newfane’s athletic director, attended a Section VI organizational meeting in West Seneca. He listened as representatives of Special Olympics New York talked about a new program called unified sports.

“The power is in teaching young people how to be advocates for inclusion, how to be inclusive themselves and then to put them to work with their peers,” said Nathan Johnson, a state Special Olympics program director who attended the meeting.

With unified basketball, Johnson said, three student-athletes with disabilities share the floor with two general education teammates. While roughly 90 athletic directors heard the pitch, Ames said only six schools initially embraced the idea. Timm Slade, executive director of Section VI, asked Ames if he could organize and schedule unified basketball and bowling leagues.

Participation exploded. As of Friday, when Newfane beat West Seneca, 36-26, in their unified basketball opener, 26 schools are taking part. Ames is “the founding father of unified in Western New York,” said Chris Hope, supervising referee at Wednesday's busy scrimmage. “None of this happens without him.”

Friday's game was the first official unified basketball contest ever for West Seneca. In classic unified fashion, no one seemed too worried about the score.

Coach Justin Balcom talks to the Newfane High School unified basketball team at the end of a practice in the school gym. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

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While Hope describes the competition as "the purest form of high school sports," program administrators had a few days of worry in March, when both the Trump and Cuomo administrations moved to cut off government funding for the Special Olympics. In New York, that organization channeled up to $300,000 in federal dollars – joined by $200,000 in state funding – into seed money for schools starting unified programs.

“It would have slowed us down, but it wouldn’t have stopped us,” Johnson said of those cuts. Amid vehement protests, both the president and governor reversed those proposals, restoring all the money.

Ames retires this year as athletic director after 34 years in the Newfane district. While he is a longtime wrestling and golf coach, he said the high point of his career was the day the school hung a banner on the gym wall for the unified teams, matching other varsity sports.

“Nothing has meant as much to me as this,” said Ames, who will continue to supervise unified athletics for Section VI.

During Wednesday's scrimmage, he watched Matt Schultz, a Newfane junior and general education student, pull down a rebound, set a pick and then pass to a wide-open Matt Krause, who flipped in a 10-footer he had practiced countless times in his driveway.

Moments later, Mike Olka, a junior born with disabilities, popped in a bucket of his own. His appreciative dad, Tom Bergum, said the team redefines the core meaning of camaraderie, a point echoed by Lisa and Dan Lundy, whose son Jake, a freshman, often looks to feed Olka the ball.

Similar moments were drawing cheers from all eight teams playing on several gym floors. Hope, the referee, spoke of the progress embodied by Newfane's Matt Murray, who stands 6-foot-7 and was born with autism. His mother, Corrie Murray, said she and her husband Michael can testify to how Matt's life changed four years ago, once he signed up for unified bowling and basketball.

“It gives him self-esteem he didn’t have before," Corrie said. "It gives him something to be proud of when he walks down the hallway in school and people recognize him, when he knows he is part of something bigger than himself.”

As an athlete, he has steadily improved. "Originally, just to be on the court, just to be in practice, was tough for him," said Justin Balcom, Newfane's coach. "Now he has no fear."

Matt Murray puts up a shot during a scrimmage as the Newfane High School unified basketball team prepares for the 2019 season in the school gym. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Matt learned to "post up" with confidence, and his bank shot is a force. Matt's brother Zach, a general education student, is a unified teammate, and Corrie – in the same way as Cori and Kevin Krause – spoke of the deep meaning of seeing her sons on the floor at the same time for their school.

“Mainly, I get to have some fun,” said Zach, who spent much of his time in a scrimmage against Clarence finding ways to keep the game flowing for both teams.

Balcom, a special education teacher, first grew to know many of his players in the classroom. “Honestly,” he said, “we could not care less about winning.” He splits his team of 35 into two rosters so everyone gets a chance to play. While his emphasis is on teaching fundamentals, his larger purpose involves more enduring lessons.

During one practice, when a player pinned in by a full-court press lost the ball, Balcom called his team together.

"You have to look back and help," he said, an approach that hardly ends once his players leave the court.

Among Wednesday's endless examples of high emotion was Miranda Van Buren's first basket for Newfane. She spent the last few years playing for Akron, so her new team roared in celebration when Van Buren grabbed a rebound and swiftly laid the ball back in.

She raised her fists toward the ceiling in utter joy. But Caitlyn Miller – a general education student who is close to Miranda – emphasized that she finds her own treasure in quieter interactions, every day.

“I’ve learned what friendship means,” Miller said of her teammates. “They offer it and ask nothing of me. They don’t see friendship as, ‘I need something from you.’ It’s completely different than anything I’ve ever known.”

She routinely stops by Balcom's classroom to talk with his students about the team – and to find a  reprieve, amid a busy day, in their warm company.

Kevin Krause (center) and sons Kyle, Matt and Connor, in letter jackets. (Family photo)

As for Kevin Krause, there was a catch in his voice when he recalled the day Matt received a varsity letter, then had it sewn onto a letter jacket. At home, the three Krause brothers – Kyle, Connor and Matt – all put on their jackets while Kevin pulled out his old one from Lockport, which somehow had mysteriously shrunk over the years.

Father and sons lived out the dream. Cori photographed them in a line, each wearing a high school jacket, an image Kevin once believed could not happen for his family.

Tyshon Finn, 17, one of Matt's teammates, said it all comes back to what makes him love the team.

“When you change someone’s core," he said, "when you help them to do something they thought they couldn’t do, that’s the best part of unified basketball.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

 

 

 

 

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