Amid the more competitive sports environments in town is a gem that welcomes students with all skill levels and a desire to have fun. Unified basketball, one of two unified sports in Needham, has a team of nearly 50 boys and girls.
Unified Sports, part of the Special Olympics of Massachusetts, is designed to promote inclusion by bringing students from both the special- and general-education tracks together to participate in school sports at every level. In Needham, both the high school and Pollard Middle school have Unified basketball and Unified track. There is talk of adding bocce ball in the future.
Athletic Director Ryan Madden said the goal is to provide the same experience for these students as they would get from any other varsity sport.
“We want to ensure it’s a positive athletic experience,” said Madden. “The students are committed, the coaches are vested. It’s a positive experience for those athletes.”
Madden said Needham has one of the larger Unified basketball programs in the conference.
While the sport is mostly about participation, these athletes want to win as much as any other team.
“As much as we can, we teach the kids, ‘This is basketball, this is how you play, it’s competitive and you try your best. Other teams want to win too,’” said Kristin Bergeron, who has been coaching the Unified basketball team for five years. “The kids like to give each other a chance to make baskets and be part of the game, but they’re also trying to be competitive and win games too.” Standard basketball rules apply.
This year’s team has many new students, so there is a lot of training and teaching. The students are learning a lot about both the sport and about how to be a good teammate. Right now the team has a one and two record.
Thomas Drossos, a senior with a lifelong love of the game, is a center. He has played for many years and joined the team two years ago because he wanted to meet new people. “I want to get familiar with my fellow students,” he said. “I like that it’s people of all disabilities, and with men and women as well.”
“The goal of this is to give students who don’t have as many opportunities to have typical peer interactions and be on teams with their peers,” said Bergeron. “It attracts kids who also value that. Everybody plays together and helps each other out.”
Any student can sign up to be part of the team, even if they don’t like basketball. Students can design T-shirts, help referee or operate the clock at games. “We’ll never make you do something you don’t want to do,” said Bergeron. “Have fun and make new friends – that’s the overall goal for the whole program.”
The next home game on Nov. 2 will be Senior Day. The dance team will perform at halftime, and students are encouraged to come support their peers.