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South Valley Riverton Journal

Unified basketball is changing the game for middle schoolers

Jun 04, 2024 01:55PM ● By Julie Slama

Joel P. Jensen Middle brings up the ball in the regional unified co-ed middle school basketball tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Wearing No. 22 for Mountain Creek Middle, ninth-grader Benjamin Lund was automatic just inside the free throw line.

Time and time again up the court, he would pick up his dribble and sink the shot, scoring points into the double digits and sending his team into overtime against their opponent.

His dad, Philip, took a few photos, but he wasn’t one of those boasting parents bragging about his son’s achievements.

“He told me that unified sports is awesome,” Philip Lund said. “It makes me happy to see him have an opportunity to play and I love seeing him smile. His teacher and coach is Karlee English and she’s an amazing person who advocates for students to have these opportunities.”

English said Lund and other ninth-graders have improved their skills from last year, their first year, to this year.

“It has been really fun to watch to see their improvement,” she said. 

Benjamin Lund and other Mountain Creek players were competing in a tournament that featured 16 different schools. While most were from Jordan School District, there also were several from the central part of the state at the Utah Valley University tournament.

In unified co-ed basketball, there are five players on the court, typically three athletes and two partners, and teams play against other squads of similar ability, said Boston Iacobazzi, Unified Champion School’s college-growth coordinator.

“It’s exciting we’re starting to see the younger age get involved in unified sports and Special Olympics,” he said. “We have students at 80 high schools doing it and now, we have two tournaments with 24 middle schools and several schools brought more than one team.”

Many of the students learned and practiced skills in the eight weeks leading up to the tournament. At the tournament, players were awarded ribbons and Utah Valley provided championship T-shirts.

Iacobazzi said that through unified sports, students are learning teamwork and sportsmanship, and it helps promote friendship within the schools.

“They’re learning that inclusivity is important at any age; everyone needs a friend and wants to be included,” he said.

English said she had so many peer tutors who wanted to play as partners to the athletes that they had to only select those who have been peer tutors for four school quarters.

“Our peer tutors are the heart and soul of making it inclusive. The peer tutors hang out with my kids before school, after school, during lunch, all through the day. They’re great,” she said.

School speech language pathologist Wendy Berrett agrees: “They sit with them on the bus, keep them entertained the whole bus ride. Our kids get excited because this is their chance to shine and have fun.”

English told her team to play with integrity and character. 

“This is the one big moment of the year because they get to be a star,” she said.

In their first year in unified basketball, Elk Ridge Middle brought two teams to the tournament coached by special education teacher Amanda Mair, along with PE teacher Steve Pollock.

“The thing that’s been exciting is that all of my kids have gotten into it,” she said. “When we first started, I was asking for volunteers to play, and three kids are really going to want to do it. Then we started practicing, and now everybody likes it. At the end of the school day, we say our positives for the day, and every day after we practice, we always have someone say their positive is basketball.”

Mair was able to get 14 partners for her 11 athletes mostly by talking to seventh-grade classes and telling them about unified sports.

“After listening to my spiel, they all wanted to sign up to play. So, we’re working on building relationships and team bonding as we go,” she said.

Spencer Darrington is a seventh-grade student-athlete at Elk Ridge.

“I like shooting,” he said. “I make sure to get it in using two hands. I like getting help from my friends on the team. They get me the ball after someone misses so I can shoot and then we try to block the other team from making shots.”

Two of the peer tutors on the team are ninth-graders Haloti Ngata and Isaac Jacobsen.

“It’s fun playing with them,” Ngata said. “I’m a peer tutor and so I know them and I’m able to help them learn how to shoot and dribble. Those are what we mostly work on. I’m happy to help and like seeing how happy they are when they accomplish their goals.”

Jacobsen said as a peer tutor, he helps them in class as well.

“I see them in the hallway, and we say hi,” he said. “Then, when I’m in first period with them, I help. Right now, we’re doing science and we’re learning about photosynthesis, so I help them spell it and help them with some experiments. Being on the basketball court is different; we’re playing together.”

Jordan School District special education teacher specialist Becca Belliston helped coach West Jordan Middle last year.

“They became much more confident and outgoing; in the weeks after the tournament last year, they held their heads high,” she said. “This is great that they have the chance to have a competitive athletic experience; it’s fun for these guys. They’re learning teamwork, social skills, healthy lifestyles and participating in an activity that fosters inclusivity in the schools.”

In fact, she said most schools held inclusion week the week of the tournament.

“They’ve had assemblies and lunchtime activities to foster the idea of inclusion in all of our schools,” she said. 

There was a spontaneous clap out for the unified team at South Jordan Middle by Superintendent Anthony Godfrey, Jordan Education Foundation members and others who were gathered in the school foyer as the players left for the tournament.

Having inclusivity in schools is important, said first lady Abby Cox, who cheered on teams at the tournament.

“I’m proud of the work that Special Olympics Utah has been doing,” she said. “I’m proud of the work of Show Up Utah and the partnerships that we have. I am proud of the school districts and the education foundations supporting this idea of full inclusion and knowing how powerful it is for all of us. This is just a huge unifier for kids and when you think about middle school, how hard it is to find your identity and your place, these kids are making it happen and they’re accepting and welcoming everyone. It’s powerful and we need this from the elementary schools all the way up to adulthood because every person deserves this kind of dignity.” λ