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Sandy Journal

Inside look into unified basketball: What athletes say about the experience

Jun 04, 2024 02:42PM ● By Julie Slama

Alta High’s coed unified basketball team, seen here playing Mountain Ridge High at the regional tournament, forges friendships through learning teamwork and demonstrating sportsmanship. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

They want to be like Mike—dishing, swishing, jamming.

“I want to slam dunk like Michael Jordan,” said Bingham High sophomore Josh McDonald as he was playing in a regional basketball tournament.

Hillcrest High senior Dax Bowen also likes Jordan’s moves as does Corner Canyon High senior Jadon Medina.

The student-athletes all play for their unified high school basketball teams. 

In unified coed basketball, there are five players on the court—three athletes and two 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. 

In the weeks leading up to the state championships, many of the unified basketball players took to the court, practicing skills they learned growing up and playing in regional tournaments.

Murray High started practicing once per week starting a couple months before the state contest. They also did a skills assessment to determine the ability of the players and then divide themselves into two teams.

“We practice shooting and making baskets,” said Murray High junior Parker May, who has a brother who taught him to “dribble, shoot and have my arms up on defense.”

Cottonwood High junior Alizia Sherard said, “We have a lot of practices where we dribble, we try to get the ball from the other team, and we make the shots.”

She learned to play from her dad and continues to play him in the family driveway.

Copper Hills High junior Corbin Roesbery also grew up playing basketball in his driveway. He started at age 12.

Alta High freshman James Miles learned how to play from his dad when he was 4 years old.

“We still play, but now, I’m practicing and playing with my friends and peer tutors in class,” he said.

Hillcrest’s Bowen also learned to play from his dad in a church gym.

“We would shoot around. On this team, we all count on each other,” he said.

Brighton High sophomore Tru Fiessinger said during their practices, they work on dribbling, defense and shooting. 

“It comes easy, but to be good, I have to work hard,” Fiessinger said.

For others, basketball was a new sport they learned with their classmates to be able to exercise and be part of their high school unified team.

Jordan High junior Kaitlyn Uzcaga, who learned to play as a freshman, said her team practiced defense.

“We have practiced our blocking; we’re wanting to move a lot more on the floor,” she said.

Mountain Ridge sophomore Ash Perez said his team also has been practicing.

“Coach (Brock) Whitney, our PE teacher, taught me how to play; I love it,” Perez said.

This year’s unified high school basketball championship was the state’s largest as 80 teams from across the state converged on the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center and HPER courts to not just determine the winners in the divisions, but to have a chance to display skills learned and to forge friendships on the court.

It was kicked off by the Special Olympics’ athlete oath and a welcome from Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox, who then helped with a dunk team doing a trick.

Much like other athletes, these Special Olympians wanted to do their best—and win.

Sophomore Saiah Lono said Herriman High’s team has a routine as they prepare for a game.

“I’m the hype man,” the point guard said. “We do a little dance to warm up and we dance to celebrate.”

Cottonwood’s Sherard said she’s always wanted to play at the U.

“I want to be No. 1 here. I like winning,” she said.

West Jordan sophomore Robert West said they practiced to play their best, “but I’m excited to win.”

Alta’s Miles is self-proclaimed “overly competitive. I like to win.”

Teams prepared their strategies. 

Bingham’s McDonald loves to play defense.

“We need to stop the other team from scoring. I have to make sure they don’t steal the ball from me, but I love to steal the ball myself,” he said.

Skyline High freshman Andrew Bouck said quick decisions are key.

“Whenever someone passes to me, I will get rid of the ball by shooting it,” he said. “If I don’t have a good look, I’ll pass it.”

Hunter High senior Angelly Velasquez sized up the competition.

“They’re lots of tall teams here,” she said. “We’re hoping we’re fast enough to go around them.”

Jordan’s Uzcaga said they started off playing well.

“We’re doing good and having fun. We’re being brave and trying our hardest,” she said.

Copper Hills’ Corbin said his team works together and helps one another to learn.

“We tell each other to never give up, to listen to our team, to listen to our coach and to have fun,” he said.

The last part, having fun together on and off the court is key, the athletes say.

Herriman’s Lono said they “hang out and have lunch together. We have dance parties.”

West Jordan’s West likes being with friends, seeing movies, playing basketball and listening to music, “mostly Taylor Swift.”

Similarly, Olympus High senior Bailee O’Conner says her favorite friends are on her team.

“We go to birthday parties, see movies at a movie theater and go to school dances together,” she said. “It makes me happy.”

Corner Canyon’s Medina knows he’s part of the Chargers’ student body.

“I like being a part of a team where I belong. I’m a part of it and a part of my school,” he said.

Skyline’s Bouck adds, “It’s fun to play here with my friends and have my family and friends cheering.”

Hunter’s Velasquez says she gives her teammates high-fives and cheers for other players when she isn’t on the court.

“We cheer for the other team, especially when they make a basket; it’s fun that everyone can be a winner that way,” she said. 

She and other teammates have been part of other unified sports teams; many of the athletes compete in unified soccer. At Hunter, they also perform in their school’s unified musicals. 

Murray’s May swims on his school’s unified swim team.

“I like to go fast and win races and be cheered on. I cheer on others too,” he said.

Copper Hills’ Roesbery placed in the top 10 in the 60 meters at the state track meet last year.

“The best thing on any team is teamwork. It’s good to listen and work together,” he said.

Riverton High seniors Travis Willis and Jason Johnson are the boys’ basketball team managers.

“We hand out towels and we go on the court to wipe the wet spots. If they’re sweaty, we pass the towels,” Johnson said. “We’ve made friends where we hang out, play basketball, listen to music.”

Willis said at unified sporting events, he gets to see middle school friends who go to other high schools. 

Hillcrest’s Bowen said his team has gone through a coaching change and several of his teammates graduated last year.

“I’ve made more friends and since I’ve played on the team for a while, I know I need to help them and be one of the leaders on the team,” he said. “State is really big. It’s the main event. But our team is what’s most important.”

Mountain Ridge’s Perez agrees.

“I like helping my team and we love each other,” Perez said. “Unified basketball gives me friends and a good work out so getting a good sweat is worth it.” λ