If you haven’t seen a unified high school basketball game, you’re really missing something.
Unified basketball is a RI Interscholastic League and RI Special Olympics partnership that pairs partner athletes with athletes who have disabilities. The program has been growing by leaps and bounds, according to RI Interscholastic League assistant executive director Michael P. Lunney.
“This is truly one of our most important initiatives because these programs have done wonders in changing the cultures of the participating schools," he said. "It’s all about developing an environment of inclusion, acceptance and respect. Our unified programs have been recognized nationally as a model for other states to follow.
“We started with a handful of basketball teams in 2010 and with the help of Special Olympics Rhode Island, the opportunities have expanded to 58 teams in the sports of Volleyball (Fall) and Basketball (Spring)," he continued. "Middle School programs have also begun and we continue to explore even more expansion and sustainability opportunities for the future.”
Recently, the unified basketball teams from Barrington High School and Mt. Hope High squared off in the spring season opener. As are most events of this kind, the game was competitive from start to finish and produced the kind of excitement some fans wouldn’t expect. Normal game infractions are abandoned to give these special students the opportunity to play together in a friendly environment where winning isn’t everything. It’s a game that everyone can enjoy, no matter what your skill level.
In the end, the Huskies bested their cross-county rivals, 43-40. There will be a rematch later in the season in Barrington.
Veteran Mt. Hope coach Tom Fullen has always professed his love of being able to coach these very special kids. He obviously was ecstatic with his win over his longtime friend and coaching counterpart.
“I thought it was a great game played by both teams,” he said. “I must give credit to my opposing coaches for the job they did getting all of their players in the game. Both teams did an excellent job in taking care of the athletes. That’s what it's all about. I think as the season goes on we will be able to hold our own against some of the bigger schools we have to play, like going to Smithfield and Bishop Hendricken, a rematch with Barrington at their house, and then going to East Providence. So it should be a fun season.”
First-year Eagles coach Mike Topazio, who recently led the Barrington Middle School girls’ team to another regular season title, jumped at the chance to coach the Barrington High unified team when the position became available.
“I love coaching basketball,” he admitted. “Without it, I don’t know what I’d do. I do know that being a part of the unified basketball program in Barrington is going to be a special treat for me.”
Unified basketball stresses togetherness and equality, the coaches said. It’s not whether you win or lose, but more about participating and having fun. The expression on these kids’ faces says it all.