My dad, Terry Walsh, has been a basketball referee nearly all his life. Each winter, he travels around the Hudson Valley officiating basketball games, and coming home with crazy stories about the games and sometimes the people on the sidelines. It's not a glamorous position, but it is one that he loves nonetheless. However, for the last few years or so, once the main season is over, he looks forward to another basketball season: Unified Basketball. When he started being involved with Unified Basketball, I was in college, so I never saw any of the games in action. Even this year, I would often be busy when he would have games. Yesterday; though, he caught me on a good day and invited me to come out to (I believe) the last game of the season. And I'm very glad that I went!

What is Unified Basketball?

According to the Special Olympics Website, "Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding." Students with disabilities don't regularly get the chance to play on their school teams, but more and more schools around the United States are picking up this Special Olympics practice. Unified Basketball partners students with developmental disabilities (Unified Student Athletes) with students without developmental disabilities (Unified Student Partners) to train, compete and represent their schools.  The program is to empower individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to engage through the power of sports and to break stigmas about ability and inclusion.

Unified Basketball in the Hudson Valley

Yesterday, I got to see Wappingers and Pine Plains duke it out. My dad has also officiated for the Arlington, Kingston, Rondout Valley, and New Paltz Unified Teams in Dutchess and Ulster Counties. My dad said that the Unified Basketball season runs from about April to May, where each team gets about 10 games in.

At yesterday's game, there were typically 3 Unified Student Athletes out on the court with two Unified Student Helpers per team. The Unified Student Helpers are there to help facilitate gameplay by brining in the ball, dribbling up court, passing the ball, and grabbing rebounds. The idea is to try to get everyone to score. My dad says sometimes the referees, the coaches, and the Unified Student Helpers will communicate and be like, "Hey, Number 5 hasn't shot in a while," and they will set up some kind of play.

My dad and some of his fellow referees will "stage" fouls just so they can get certain people to the foul line in order to make a basket. My dad said, “We play fast and loose with the rules. There is basically no traveling, no double dribbles. We occasionally make up fouls to get people to the line who need shots.” In certain situations, they'll let it take as many tries needed to make a basket before resuming gameplay; however, based on yesterday's game, that is hardly needed. All of the students were sinking buckets constantly, from 3 pointers, to foul shots, to layups, and more. It was a pretty close point differential the entire time, and in the end, Wappingers took the victory.

Sportsmanship is Key

One thing that I found that was cool was that there seemed to be an unwritten rule that when someone is about to shoot, you give them room. They can play defense all they want leading up to that moment, but when it looks like someone is about to put up a shot, all players give them the respect and space to get the shot up. The coaching staff and players even have certain dances, at times, when certain players score. "[Unified Basketball is] a fun thing to do after the pressures of the winter season can be so intense. We can relax and have fun, and everyone enjoys themselves. Although, once it gets to the last couple minutes of the game, everyone wants to win.”

One thing that is different in Unified Games compared to other sporting events is the cheering from the crowd. People from both sides always cheer when a basket is made, regardless of who made it. It is quite an encouraging atmosphere, and there are positive vibes all around. My dad says that he has seen parents filming an entire game with tears in their eyes, so proud of their child being active in the game. “It’s a pleasure to be thanked as you are leaving the gym rather than during the winter season being yelled at," my dad said. "Everyone leaves the gym with a smile on their face. It’s some of the most gratifying officiating you do all year.”

It's More Than Just a Game, It's a Whole Event

By the end of the season, since it is such a small group, you are calling the athletes by their names, not just their numbers. At the beginning of the game, there is a lot of fun music as the players get ready. There will be announcers and sometimes even cheerleaders to support the teams. Other sports teams who do not have practice or a game that day will come into the gymnasium to root for their school. Depending on the date and time, there may also be snack vendors selling hot dogs and chips. Sometimes parents will even bring in cookies for everyone (not just the team, literally everyone in attendance. They must have a big oven). Teams will occasionally run through the doors as intro music plays to introduce themselves right before the game, followed by the National Anthem. It truly is the full experience.

Between quarters, and especially at half time, you can find many of the players dancing. A few schools have even held full-on dancing contests at half time. My dad remembers one time the teams did the Cotton-Eyed Joe during warm ups to get everyone going.

Since this was the end of the season, Wappingers had some awards to give out at the end of the game. It was so sweet to see all the players get excited, hug one another, do little dances and handshakes, and support each other as they all lined up for their awards.

A Few Inspiring Examples

There is so much talent and skill out on the court. It's awesome to see the rapport amongst teammates and see students come out of their shells. I heard some teammates yell from the side, "Do your spin move!" and then the player with the ball will do it. Maybe it's not 100% legal, but it looks great, and gets the audience cheering!

When speaking to a few of the coaches from Wappingers yesterday, they said to be on the lookout for Michael, who they call their "Harlem Globetrotter." They said that he is always trying to get crowd participation. For instance, when a player shoots foul shouts, it is customary to be respectful and quiet so they can concentrate. Not Michael, he will put down the ball and fan his arms to try to get everyone cheering during his foul shots. One time he nearly forgot to do it, so someone nudged him, and he goes, "Oh! You're right!" It was so funny and so wholesome.

On Pine Plains, Wesley uses a wheelchair to play, and has a Unified Student Helper wheeling him up and down court. When he gets the ball, he'll rest the ball in his lap and wheel the chair himself at times. He also has his own basket that they bring out. They'll place the basket beside him to he can slide it in. I believe I overheard that he scored 20 points yesterday!

A couple of years ago, my dad was at a McDonald's when a former player from NFA came up to him and asked if he remembered him. My dad did, greeted him, and they both sat together and talked for a while. The NFA player said that he graduated high school, was going to Orange Community College, and was working a part-time job that he loved. My dad said it was super gratifying to see one of the players doing so well.

Sporting events and opportunities like this really do help to break down boundaries and offer a greater sense of inclusion here in the Hudson Valley. It's a wholesome event that is exciting and heartwarming to watch. I encourage more schools in the area to invest in such a program.

Wappingers v Pine Plains Unified Basketball Game 5/23/2022

Unified Basketball is growing in the Hudson Valley, and I got to witness the gameplay and camaraderie firsthand between Wappingers and Pine Plains.

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