Nick Walsh is 6-foot-4, 295 pounds — a high school football lineman by build if ever there was one — and a senior who’s playing varsity basketball for the first time. These days he finds himself giving a lot of high-fives while walking the Hilton hallways, primarily to kids who don’t play football or varsity basketball.
They’re teammates, though, and those high-fives bring smiles wider than any hole he ever created blocking for a running back. They’re his Hilton pals in Unified Basketball, a sport that will soon begin its fifth season in Section V and one that’s growing to the modified level. The program, which runs in cooperation with the Special Olympics, combines children with cognitive, intellectual or other disabilities on the same team with “partners,” who are classmates and teammates with no such limitations.
“My thought process about disabled children or someone that’s said to be ‘special’ has changed a lot,” says Walsh, a backup forward/center on the varsity basketball team. “They’re just normal kids and they have (some) challenges in their life.”
His varsity basketball coach, Troy Prince, also coaches the Unified team and along with Walsh’s friend, Mike Healy, nudged Nick to try Unified last spring. Walsh says he made new friends and connected with kids that he never would have. The big guy’s role for the Unified squad was simple: Snare as many rebounds as possible and pass or handoff to teammates for layups or baskets that fulfill dreams.
That’s what Unified sports do. They make kids with some disability part of something bigger, part of a team playing for a common goal, which is to compete and win. They build self-esteem and foster confidence.
“They give kids with disabilities a way to feel authenticated in an actual athletic role and environment,” says Penfield’s Jason Ellis, the school’s Unified and varsity boys basketball coach. “They truly feel like they’re experiencing everything that say, our varsity basketball players are.”
While fun is emphasized, so is playing to win. Competing is part of the equation, “it’s not about participation trophies,” says Jak Julien, the parent of a former player on Fairport’s Unified basketball team, Tyler Julien, 21, who graduated a few years ago and has been a volunteer assistant on the Red Raiders’ staff.
Unified is growing
Unified is only offered in basketball in Section V and in the spring. Ten of the state’s 11 sections offer Unified sports. The only one that doesn’t is Section X, which is at the northern tip bordering Canada. It has plans to add Unified, says Todd Nelson, an assistant director for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.
More than 135 schools statewide have Unified basketball teams, including 25 locally that play in a league against other Section V schools. Unified bowling will start in sections II (Albany region), III (central New York) and VI (Buffalo area) this year, Nelson says. Section V has instead chosen to expand basketball to the modified level. The six schools doing that are Fairport, Honeoye Falls-Lima, Newark, Penfield, Spencerport and Webster. Those teams will pair “ID” or intellectually disabled children, as the program recognizes them, with a handful of junior-high kids from the general student body.
“It makes for an easy transition,” to high school, says Denny Fries, the longtime area athletic administrator and former West Irondequoit athletic director who spearheaded the Unified program in 2014 after the NYSPHSAA pitched it.
Unified started in Section II, the Albany area, where they NYSPHSAA is based. Section V came next with 14 schools participating in 2014. The program mimics one that started in Connecticut. The national federation for high school sports “has really made an emphasis around the country,” to push Unified sports, Nelson says.
For basketball, there must be at least three ID players on the court at all times. Most squads are split, using a half-dozen or so other athletes without disabilities. They’re called “partners.”
In recent years, Penfield’s has included Frankie Gissendanner, the three-time wrestling state champion who was named the Democrat and Chronicle’s All-Greater Rochester Male Athlete of the Year last June, and Jack Bittker, the 2016 state Player of the Year and AGR Player of the Year for the state champion boys volleyball team.
“It’s fun. It’s pretty cool to see. It’s like an awesome atmosphere,” says Gissendanner, who admits that the “partner” athletes do try to make sure games stay close to the end.
Nineteen of the 25 area schools with Unified teams are in the Monroe County league. Edison and East in the Rochester City School District have squads and Newark, Wayne and Red Jacket from the Finger Lakes do, too. For the first time this year, three schools — Edison, HF-L and Webster — are each slated to field two high school Unified basketball teams, Fries says.
Non-ID athletes also cannot have played the same interscholastic sport in the same school year, so in Walsh’s case now that he has played for Hilton’s varsity he can’t do Unified this spring. So, he plans to be a coach.
Schools with Unified teams also must have a YAC — Youth Activation Committee. It’s a club to “promote inclusion,” Fries says. The students in it make banners and make sure school announcements include information to encourage fans to come to Unified games.
That fits right in with the “unify” theme.
Bittker looks back on the experience as uplifting.
“The best part about being on the unified team was getting to know and befriending all the amazing personalities of students I had previously only seen walking the halls of the school,” Bittker said. “I’ll never forget the bus rides back from away games, singing songs together and loving every second.”
Dose of perspective
Walsh played some basketball away from school programs and Prince actually saw him a few years back at an AAU event and thought for a big guy his footwork was terrific. His interest piqued again last spring when he saw Walsh play Unified, but he always maintained a low pressure approach, just mentioning to Walsh that he had a open offer to play varsity.
“I’m really happy that he came out,” says Prince, who uses Walsh a few minutes off the bench each game. “The biggest thing is his character.”
With only two other senior players on a young team, the Cadets needed experience. They started slow but have rebounded to 7-6. Having to learn plays and blocking schemes in football, Walsh picked up the offensive side of basketball quickly.
But his role on the team extends beyond the court. “Nick leads by example yet he’s willing to step up and say things because he’s pretty intelligent as well,” Prince says.
Both Prince and Walsh say being part of Unified gives life a little more perspective.
“It’s rewarding just seeing those kids feel like a big part of a team,” Prince says.
Gissendanner says it helps push him in his own athletic pursuits.
“It makes me not want to take life for granted and use all the opportunities I have and work hard toward my goals in wrestling or football or lacrosse,” he says. “These kids are trying to work hard and succeed just like me.”
Julien, the father of a former Unified player, says he appreciates how much the “mainstream kids” help. “They get so much out of it. I get choked up thinking about it,” he says. “They absolutely love it.”
Best thing all week
Some longtime Section V athletic directors point to things that happen in Unified sports as among the most moving they’ve ever seen in high school athletics. Ellis calls it a “feel-good sport. It’s incredible.”
He carries a big squad, usually 14-16 kids with about six “partners,” and his varsity guys usually help as coaches. They practice a couple times a week and have one game. It keeps Ellis, the father of two sons younger than 4, busy but his wife, Kayla, jokes that she won’t let him give up Unified. If something’s gotta give, he can’t quit Unified.
“It makes you a better person,” the pediatric ICU nurse at Strong Memorial Hospital tells her husband.
Ellis doesn’t disagree. “Unified allows me to take a step back, take a breath, smile and just enjoy the experience for what it’s worth,” the 34-year-old says in one of the handful of Unified videos he has posted on his YouTube channel. “It really is one of the most amazing things we’re part of.”
Tyler Julien also was a longtime manager in Fairport’s basketball program. He knows the game well, regularly wears a tie and sport coat in his new role, and says he feels fortunate because Unified has allowed him to meet so many new people. His father appreciated that being on that team taught his son as much about setbacks compared to winning.
“As a parent I was like, ‘Oh my God nobody wants to play more than Tyler!’ and I could have gone to the coach,” Jak Julien says.
But he didn’t. His son told him not to, saying “it’s not how this works, it’s about who is the best. Hey, we’re out here to win.”
The impact on his son was profound. “He worked harder in practice, worked on his game and raised his skill set,” Jak says.
It was Tyler’s only season on the team. He was graduating, which was a bummer. The family wished he could have played more. But after the final game, one of Fairport’s Unified coaches, Marc Vitticore, asked Tyler to return the following year to help coach.
“We still go to the games and we don’t have a kid on the team anymore. It means that much to us,” Jak Julien says. “If you asked 10 parents, all 10 would say, ‘That game was the best thing that happened to us all week.’ ”