Skyline High unified basketball team scores on and off the courtMar 30, 2023 03:59PM ● By Julie Slama
At the regional unified basketball tournament, Skyline High shoots for two against Tooele High. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
Skyline High freshman Anthony Gull was excited to show his dribbling and shooting skills on the hardwood.
“We’ve worked on shooting baskets, dribbling, defense and teamwork, but I like it best when we score,” the student-athlete said. “It’s fun hanging out with my friends and other teams. I like seeing how everyone’s faces are happy.”
Gull is part of his school’s unified sports program. He already has a unified soccer medal in his bedroom and was looking to add a ribbon at a regional unified basketball tournament held in late February.
“We work hard, but we expect to be happy and to have fun,” he said.
In unified basketball, teams have 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.”
Junior Penni Duzy played on her school’s unified squad that took second place at the regional tournament, but that wasn’t her favorite part.
“Giving everyone on both teams high-fives is my favorite part,” she said, adding that she played on last year’s inaugural team as well. “I like getting exercise and having fun. We help each other out and cheer for everyone on both teams.”
Duzy, who also plays soccer and rides horses, appreciated having her family there to support for her. She was looking forward to playing at the state tournament.
In Utah, involvement in unified high school basketball has skyrocketed. This year, there were the most teams in its history competing to play at state—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 Skyline beat Brighton High to take fifth place in its division. Administrators from several school districts and educational foundations joined Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox to support the competition, 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.”