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West Valley City Journal

Unified basketball thriving at Hunter High

Mar 31, 2023 02:52PM ● By Julie Slama

Hunter High brings up the ball against Murray High in the regional unified basketball tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Hunter High senior William Ricks grabbed a bite to eat between games at the regional unified basketball tournament.

“Unified basketball is tons of fun,” he said. “I like playing with my friends; they show me what to do and help me get better.”

Ricks, who also played on Hunter’s unified soccer team, said he appreciates the exercise he’s getting.

“I like to get faster and stronger and become better,” he said. “Playing is good, really good. I’m ready to go play again.”

His basketball and soccer teammate, sophomore Whitney Rasmussen, competes in unified track too.

“I like my friends; it’s fun,” said the three-sport unified student-athlete.

Rasmussen, who also is a cheerleader at the school, likes to be cheered on by her peers — and on Feb. 27 at Murray High, the fans packed the house to support the unified players.  Hunter finished third in its division.

In unified basketball, each team has five players on the court — three athletes and two unified partners. Teams play against other squads of the same ability in two eight-minute halves.  Supported by Special Olympics and the Utah High School Activities Association, unified sports has both a competitive and a player development level, the latter which provides more of a cooperative environment with partners being teammates and mentors.  

UHSAA referee Paul Madsen said he appreciates unified basketball.

“There’s great sportsmanship,” he said. “Everyone is helping each other. It’s wonderful to see.” 

That’s something Hunter High coach John Young appreciates.

“it’s It’s so cool because it’s just natural,” he said. “Our peer tutors and kids have a real friendship. They have a PE class together and after PE, they eat lunch together. We even did a unified play this year with all the main roles filled by our special ed kids and were supported by our peer tutors.  Unified sports is another aspect of inclusion and friendship. Everyone is there for one another and wants everyone to score. Basketball is my favorite because it’s loud and a lot of fun.”

In Utah, involvement in unified high school basketball has skyrocketed. This year, there were the most teams in its history competing to play at statee — 73 teams competed for 32 state seeds, said Courtnie Worthen, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools manager.

At the March 8 state unified basketball tournament, there was plenty of smiles and cheers as Hunter took fourth place in its division.

Administrators from several school districts and educational foundations joined Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox to support the competiton, which was held at Weber State University.

Abby Cox said she was proud of everyone in the gym.

“Utah as a state — we are part of the inclusion revolution,” she told them.

Unified sports engages students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams, leading to not only sports skills development and competition, but also inclusion and friendship, Worthen said.

“Unified sports provides social inclusion opportunities for all teammates to build friendships on and off the court,” she said. “The teammates challenge each other to improve their skills and fitness and at the same time, increase positive attitudes and establish friendships and provide a model of inclusion for the entire school community.”

Unified sports, Worthen said, is included in the Unified Champion Schools model, where a unified team is supported by the entire school and there is inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.

“With schools that embrace the Unified Champion Schools model, they create communities where all students feel welcome and are included in all school activities and opportunities. Students feel socially and emotionally secure, they’re more engaged in the school and feel supported, and are respected,” she said. “It changes school climates.”