We previously detailed the start of a new Unified basketball league in the East Bay communities of Brentwood and Oakley. We got to attend the first-ever game, and it was nothing short of amazing.
You could just feel the excitement as students and parents filed into the Freedom High School gym.
“It’s fantastic,” a parent of a Heritage student told me. “I’m so happy it started. It really pulls the community together.”
“This will benefit her as she matures,” another HHS parent related to me about her daughter.
FHS students had made posters and both the cheer and dance teams were there. With students milling in, the stands quickly filled to capacity.
“Oh this is so dope,” one FHS general education student said upon seeing the two teams warming up on the court.
The Special Olympics Unified Sports program is designed to provide meaningful social engagement at school between general education and students receiving special education services. At the Liberty program, each team featured students in the life skills program/receiving special education along with general education students. Whether they were selected or signed up on their own, all of the general education students had a blast. Many of them play for their school’s varsity or JV basketball team.
The three high schools involved – American, Freedom, Heritage – all played each other at least once. The following rule modifications exist to make the game meaningful for all:
At all times on the court, there must be one female and two life-skills students
- Teams must pass three times before a shot is taken
- Players may reshoot a rebounded ball
- General ed students are limited to five shots total per quarter
- Each team has one breakaway and two timeouts per quarter
- The games is played in five-minute, running-clock quarters
Everybody was raring to go after FHS student TJ fired up not only the crowd but also his own team before tip-off.
The gym absolutely exploded with enthusiasm after a Freedom life skills student made his first basket. Despite it being everyone’s first official game, the game flow went smoothly. The general education students did an excellent job at rebounding, guiding their teammates into place and distributing the ball amongst everyone. The two teams went into halftime with Freedom leading 6-4.
It was overwhelming to see these two rival schools playing together in this landmark game. The gym was raucous with cheers for both squads.
“It brings us together in so many ways,” Freedom coach Shannon Yancey said. “There was a common goal. We’re big rivals but everyone was supporting each other. The students felt like celebrities. All of the SDC students made baskets, which was our goal.”
The Freedom general education students had a blast!
“It was great; I was more pumped than they were when they made shots.”
“It couldn’t have been any better.”
“We all had fun. Having the crowd behind them with everything they did made it great.”
Unity – the Ultimate Winner
Seeing the teammates interact with each other, it couldn’t be more clear that this is more than just basketball. Sports is the vehicle for this life and community changing program. In this case, basketball provides the two groups of students with a common ground for a shared experience, making it tremendously easier to bridge general and special education students. While the general education students are coaching the life skills students in how to make a lay-up, they’re also building lasting bonds of friendship, and more importantly, respect.
Many of these students did not have any interactions with each other before the league. Now not only are they friends but also advocates. Advocates for each other. Advocates of promoting acceptance and inclusion for all. This sports league is an example of Special Olympics Unified Sports, and the title is quite fitting as it brings together these two groups.