There’s about 7:30 left on the clock in the fourth quarter.
Playing on their home court, the Gaudet Middle School Islanders team trails the squad from Lawn Middle School in Jamestown by more than a couple of buckets during a recent unified basketball game.
That was until Rahsaan Marshall nailed back-to-back bank shots in the lane to tighten the score, to the applause of everyone in attendance — even the fans rooting for the opposing team.
Eventually, Lawn pulled away, taking the game 26-22, but everyone on hand agreed that wasn’t necessarily the point of the matchup. Rather, it was to get students who might not otherwise play in a basketball game with a referee, crowd and scoreboard the thrill and action of the real thing.
“It’s fun and amazing!” said Cameron Costa, a sixth grader on the Gaudet team who wore No. 3. “I love these games!”
“I had a friend who joined in and talked about how great it was,” fellow sixth grader Aibhlinn McGrath said, wearing No. 2. “I’m so glad I did it. I’m trying out as many clubs as I can and this one is definitely the most rewarding.”
According to Special Olympics, unified sports became an internationally sanctioned program in 1989.
The idea of the inclusive sports program is to give an equal number of special education athletes with intellectual disabilities and partners without intellectual disabilities an opportunity to train and compete against other similar squads.
Across the globe, there are unified sports teams competing in everything from basketball, football and volleyball to golf, tennis and bocce.
Chyleene O’Connor, a retired Middletown teacher who coaches the Gaudet Unified Islanders with her husband Jack, said Middletown High created a unified basketball team a dozen years ago. The program was so successful that a similar team was created at Gaudet.
“It’s a great experience for all,” O’Connor said. “Unified Basketball is a chance to be part of a school team which is such a huge part of middle school. It’s a chance learn how to play basketball, learn to work as a team and to appreciate everyone with their differing abilities.”
During the first few weeks of practice, O’Connor said things can be a little rusty for everyone. But like with any team, the more everyone gets comfortable together, the better things go.
“Seeing kids build relationships is so much fun,” O’Connor said. “At the beginning of the season, some of the kids are a little hesitant to jump in when someone needs help, but after a few weeks in, the teammates just do it naturally. The kids love to see each other improve in the game. The game is run by other students in the school. We have students who keep score, run the clock, plan cheers and sing the National Anthem.”
Gaudet sixth grader Chase Gaudet (No. 23) said he gets great satisfaction playing on the unified team, particularly when he and his buddy Nico Campopiano (No. 13) share the court together.
“It makes me so happy to hang out with everyone and help wherever I can,” Gaudet said. “I really can’t explain it. You just feel good about yourself, knowing you’re helping here or during school or hanging out in the hallway.”
“I play basketball whenever I can and this is just so much fun,” No. 22 Abby Mello said, a Gaudet sixth grader. “I’ve made so many good friends and learned a lot through this.”
“It’s not just a basketball team,” No. 4 Audrey Ellis added, also a Gaudet sixth grader. “It’s about a lot more than that. A lot.”
Ceili McCarthy, a special education teacher assistant who works with Cameron, said she knows immediately when it’s game day for the unified team.
“Cameron always comes in, wearing his jersey,” McCarthy said. “He’s so proud and it’s all he was talking about today. That just puts a smile on my face. Everyone part of this does and they’re so lucky to have Chyleene and Jack coaching the team. They’re the ones who make this all happen.”
As the last few minutes ticked off the clock and Lawn cemented its lead, special efforts were made to get players who hadn’t scored a chance or two to make a shot. Referee Stephen Fitzgerald kept things moving, but made sure everyone had an opportunity to get this name on the stat sheet.
After time expired, the teams lined up in a traditional handshake line and bumped elbows, exchanging congratulations as the crowd of about 100 people applauded.
“I play (basketball) with kids in my neighborhood and stuff like that,” No. 12 Sofia Rooney said, a sixth grader at Gaudet. “With this, if you watch the games, everyone is having such a good time.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” No. 15 Gabby Marins said, a sixth grader at Gaudet. “I’m playing with friends and people I’ve just met, but I think I’m making lifetime friendships here.”
For O’Connor, she said she and her husband were proud to be a part of the unified effort in Middletown. During COVID-19 when the team wasn’t able to get together, parents said O’Connor went to the home of each player and gave them a gift certificate to Frosty Freez
and told them how disappointed she was they couldn’t play.
“I retired this year, but came back to coach Unified because it is such a rewarding experience,” O’Connor said. “When I first started teaching there weren’t any unified teams and it’s now a big part of our school community. The kids are so proud to wear their jerseys to school the day of the game and so happy to see the gym fill up with teachers, family and friends.”