By Brianna Harmon and Brian Harmon

It just may be the best thing to happen to high school athletics since, well, forever.

Unified basketball — a co-ed varsity sport with teams made up of general education students and students with documented intellectual disabilities — features compassion, kindness, sportsmanship, opportunity and just the right amount of competition.

“Both teams try their hardest and compete to win, but the sportsmanship is what sets unified basketball apart from other high school sports,” Connetquot unified basketball Coach Kyle Black said. “We shake hands with the other team — not only after the games, but before the games too.

“When one team makes a great shot, the players on the other team clap and congratulate them,” he added.

Connetquot completed its inaugural season of unified basketball last week, losing a first-round home playoff game to Half Hollow Hills East.

But the loss hardly dampened the spirits of the T-bird players.

“At the end of our meeting after each game, one of our senior leaders Nick Kennedy asks, ‘Guys, raise your hand if you had fun today?'” Black said. “And win or lose, the whole team raises their hands.”

Creating opportunities

The brainchild of the New York State Special Olympics, unified basketball was created to provide more opportunities for intellectually challenged students to play interscholastic sports.

Rules align with school basketball —  the only difference is that at all times on the court, there must be three students with a documented intellectual disability and two general education students. The blend results in incredibly special mentoring relationships.

“This is exactly what high school sports should be about,” Connetquot Athletic Director Mark Dellecave said. “It’s incredible just to see these kids be there for each other, and cheer for each other. You can’t watch a game of unified basketball without smiling.”

Dellecave, who is retiring from Connetquot schools at the end of the school year, is expected to become chairman of Section XI Athletics‘ unified sports program. Twelve high schools put unified basketball squads on the court this spring — up from four when Section XI began the program in 2017.

Participation is expected to increase, as well as expand to other sports, Dellecave said.

“Word is out on what a positive experience it is for the kids. I’m sure it will spread through Suffolk County,” affirmed Black, a special education teacher with Connetquot who has coached the boys varsity basketball teams at Bayport-Blue Point and Connetquot high schools.

Sarah Ecke, the T-birds’ assistant coach, is a special education math teacher at Connetquot High School. She played basketball at Longwood High School and St. Joseph’s College.

“This was the perfect situation for us, considering our background and experience,” Black said. “When you coach or watch these games, you forget who the mentor players are, and who the intellectually disabled players are. All of the kids get an opportunity to represent our school, which is a privilege and honor.”

Embracing differences, learning from each other

Kennedy, one of the mentoring players on the T-birds, said he has been inspired by Connetquot’s first unified basketball season.

“This game is all about fun, not winning. And the sportsmanship level is incredible,” said Kennedy, who plans to attend Suffolk County Community College this fall. “It’s all about helping each other, not competition.”

One of Kennedy’s “mentees” is fellow senior classmate Jackie Smith, who isn’t shy about her admiration of the game of basketball. She stated that she loves playing basketball with her dad and that she was nervous, but very excited for the playoff game last week.

Erika Jarymiszyn played basketball up until her freshman year, returning to the court this spring as a senior on Connetquot’s unified basketball team.

A participant in Connetquot’s Best Buddies program, Jarymiszyn said she plans on going to Cortland in the fall, where she will major in special education.

“The kids on our team are change agents — they are starting a change in the culture of our school and community, making it more inclusive for people with differences,” Black said. “Change is starting with sports, and we hope for it to spread through our school and community to show that you can be friends with people who are different from you.” contributor Brianna Harmon was at Connetquot’s May 30 playoff game to catch all the spirit of unified basketball.

Check out the action and fun in her photos below. Click on boxes 2, 3 and 4 to see them all.