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Unified teams teach the real meaning of sport

At last year’s event at Blessed Sacrament School, Special Olympics athlete Joelle Packard, left, took an on-court break with her unified partner Caroline Shriver. (Pamela Yerg)

March is the month for big-time basketball games — professional, college and high school.

I got a head start on March Madness when I saw some big games Saturday. Montgomery County Special Olympics held its eighth annual exhibition of unified basketball at Blessed Sacrament School in Chevy Chase. The gym was packed with cheerleaders, parents and friends. The walls were covered with posters made by third- and fourth-graders at the school. And all the elementary, middle and high school unified teams were playing hard and having fun.

So what’s unified basketball? It’s a program in which players with mental (and sometimes physical) disabilities play with kids who are volunteers, called unified partners. In basketball, the unified partners rebound, pass and sometimes push a special athlete’s wheelchair.

As Brian Ross, a seventh-grader at St. Albans School in Washington, explained to me, “You just try to help and get everyone involved.”

I’ve been watching unified teams practice for weeks, and the games are like most kids’ games. Pamela Yerg, the director of Special Olympics in Montgomery County, says sports are a great way for special athletes to work on their skills, get exercise and make friends.

Coach Jason Thibeault helps an athlete from the Katherine Thomas School in Rockville with her shot. (Pamela Yerg)

Just like all kids, the special athletes get better the more they play, and they love to shoot and score a basket. When I asked Marti Clark, an 18-year-old special athlete who attends the Harbour School near Baltimore, what she liked best about playing hoops, she smiled and said, “I’m a shooter.”

Unified games are different in some ways. For one thing every basket, no matter which team scores, is cheered and celebrated. Some special athletes have come a long way to be where they are.

Caleb Head is a 15-year-old special athlete who attends Damascus High School in Montgomery County. When he started, Caleb would only stand at the door and watch. Then Caleb began to practice his shooting on the side baskets but still would not play in the games. Now Caleb runs up and down the court looking for his shot.

Special Olympics sponsors more than 20 unified sports. So if you are in the third grade or older and you like to play, you may want to check out the unified teams. It’s a great way to play sports and help out — because the special athletes are not the only ones who benefit from unified sports; the unified partners do, too.

Marla Grusin, whose son Tyler is a special athlete, told me every kid should come to a Special Olympics game. If they do, she said, they will learn “to share the ball” and that the game “is not all about me.”

Not a bad lesson for any athlete.

Fred Bowen writes the weekly sports opinion column for KidsPost. He is the author of 17 sports books for kids. His latest are “Quarterback Season” and “Real Hoops.”

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