PORTSMOUTH — Danny Marshall won’t be denied.
During a basketball game against Middletown last week, he grabs a defensive rebound and runs the length of the court, deftly dribbling past defenders. Finding himself blocked from driving to the hoop, however, he stops for an 18-foot jump shot.
As it turns out, Danny is just as determined off the court. His persistence played a part in getting a unified basketball program started at Portsmouth High School three years ago.
“Our big boy here, Danny, was a freshmen and he’d come into Mike’s office every day because he wanted to try out for the varsity team,” said Nancy Fitzgerald, chairwoman of the Health & Physical Education Department at PHS, referring to former athletic director Michael Lunney. Mr. Lunney left the district in 2011 to take a position with the R.I. Interscholastic League (RIIL).
Ms. Fitzgerald was already aware of unified sports programs, in which students with and without intellectual disabilities play together on the same team. She had seen a game on television and had pressed Mr. Lunney for a similar program in Portsmouth.
“He said we weren’t able to get the paperwork in on time,” recalled Ms. Fitzgerald. “I said, ‘Well, we’re doing it next year.’”
So in 2011, the unified basketball program was born. “We also have a unified volleyball team to. That’s in the fall,” said Ms. Fitzgerald, who serves as the unified sports coordinator.
Unified basketball is a varsity sport that falls under the purview of RIIL, in partnership with R.I. Special Olympics.
“It started with eight teams. Now we have 30 high school teams and 10 middle school teams,” said Chris Hopkins, director of programs for the R.I. Special Olympics.
On a unified team, students with special needs get a chance to compete as varsity athletes.
“Half of our kids are called athletes, the other half are classified as partners. The partners are the student helpers/coaches, and the athletes are our students with intellectual disabilities,” said Ms. Fitzgerald. “We have three athletes and two partners on the court at the same time.”
League rules dictate that the partners can score no more than half of their team’s total points, but they typically put up far fewer points than that.
“They decided on their own that they weren’t going to score,” Ms. Fitzgerald said of Portsmouth’s partners. “I think in our first year we had like 425 points and our partners scored about 18 total. They’re there to rebound, pass the ball and help the kids get the ball down the court.”
Several PHS football players are partners on the unified basketball team (partners aren’t allowed to play on another varsity team at the same time).
“You need consistency. You need somebody who’s going to be there all the time, so I chose kids who weren’t playing a spring sport,” said Ms. Fitzgerald. “I try to get kids who have a sense of how the game is played, but also have the personality where they can work well with the other kids.”
The progress that the special needs students have made is “amazing,” she said, especially when you look at the ones who started the unified program as freshmen and are now juniors.
“As freshman they had these seniors and juniors who were their buddies around school and playing. All of a sudden they had a face around school — kids coming up to them and high-fiving them,” said Ms. Fitzgerald. “They’ve made a lot of friends, they’ve been accepted by their peers, their names are in the paper and they’re being picked on less.”
Partners past and present
The experience has been equally as memorable for partners like Dan Thorpe, who graduated last year. Before Portsmouth’s game against Middletown last week, he visited the gym and was instantly mobbed by his former teammates.
“They’re excited, but I was probably more excited to see them,” said Dan, who attends Springfield College. “It was so much fun. I still miss it.”
“He was one of the first kids in the school, when I sent out a notice, to volunteer,” said Mr. Fitzgerald. “For two years he was awesome with our kids.”
Kate Ashley is another former partner — in both basketball and volleyball — who visited the team last week.
“I started with Mrs. Fitz the Youth Action Committee, so we had students with and without disabilities working together after school to do stuff for the Special Olympics,” said Kate, who attends the University of Rhode Island. “I gained a whole lot of appreciation for how hard these kids work and I’ve gained some really great friends.”
Matt Maiato, a PHS senior, decided to become a partner as a way of giving back to the school.
“Honestly I think it’s more rewarding to me just to see the progress they’ve made as people and helping with their difficulties,” said Matt. “When I first got here Andrew, one of the kids, didn’t really talk at all. Now he’s talking and opening up to us and playing and participating.”
The PHS team plays games on Wednesdays against teams from Middletown, Newport, Tiverton, Bristol/Warren, Barrington, Providence and Woonsocket. Last week’s win against Middletown was notable in that several of the visiting team’s players actually live in Portsmouth.
“Middletown has a lot of our Portsmouth kids who are in their Life Skills program,” said Ms. Fitzgerald, adding that several students with Down syndrome are on the Middletown team. “We don’t usually don’t get the Down syndrome kids who live in Portsmouth; they usually go to the Middletown school.”
At middle school, too
Portsmouth Middle School is one of only 10 in the state that has a unified basketball program.
There are 14 students on the team — half of them with intellectual disabilities — in grades 6 to 8. They play teams from Tiverton, Barrington, North Providence and East Greenwich, with the first game against Barrington on April 4 at home.
“It’s a great program for the school. It gets kids involved and I think it’s great for the community as well,” said Alex Simeone, the school’s unified coach. “I think (the athletes) are learning how to work with others, and for the partners it’s a great experience for them to have kids from the school come and cheer them on.”
The school also has the Best Buddies program. “That’s a program similar to unified basketball. It unifies kids with and without learning disabilities and they work together and do fun activities,” said Mr. Simeone.
For more information about unified sports programs, visit www.rihssports.com.