Even a reporter can cheer for this game
In my time as a professional journalist, I’ve covered a lot of outstanding events and interviewed plenty of noteworthy people. From talking briefly to Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, Natalie Coughlin and CC Sabathia, to interviewing Christian Yelich while he was in high school or USS Indianapolis survivor Harold Bray in his house, I’ve been blessed during those moments.
You can add watching Benicia and American Canyon high students Dylan McCausland, Edward Dunstan, Calvin Taylor and Jordan Russell to that list.
All four were on the rosters for the Unified Sports basketball game that was played between the two schools in a partnership with the Special Olympics on Monday. Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle — training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. By the time the contest was over you wondered, “How come every single school doesn’t do this at least once a year?”
Oh these guys weren’t about to pull off any 360-degree windmill slam dunks. In fact, Dunstan had to be turned around 180 degrees by his teammate just to know which basket belonged to him. Some of the players on the court traveled more than Lewis and Clark, Frodo Baggins and James Harden combined, but nobody cared. Referees’ whistles were as silent as a mime, their usual noise replaced by cheers from the crowd.
Yes, there was a scoreboard, but it was paid about as little at
tention as a Chicago pool during the winter and stats were ignored more than a diet during Christmas.
Instead, all of the community came together and made students often left alone feel like they belonged. When American Canyon’s Russell hit a long 3-pointer, he immediately put his hand to his ear and faced the crowd, asking, “Let me get some applause please.” His wish was granted.
When Benicia High baseball player Jaxson Bates hit a 3-pointer from downtown, he mimicked a guitar solo, often done by ex-NBA player Lance Stephenson. Immediately, two of his teammates tried to imitate Bates before giving him a high-five.
When Benicia’s Lucas Paterno, who must have weighed 100 pounds soaking wet, missed a shot right under the basket, the crowd groaned. But an American Canyon player grabbed the rebound and gave it right back to Paterno, who eventually connected on the bank shot to loud cheers. As far as the Wolves’ player is concerned, I guess you could call that an assist.
Later on, Benicia’s Joey Zimmer gave the ball to Dunstan, who had a difficult time dribbling the
ball without losing it. No worries, Zimmer was right by his side to retrieve it and give it back to Dunstan, who would try again, his smile picking up a little with each attempt.
Even this writer began to get goose bumps during the contest. As journalists, we’re taught early on to never to root for a team in the press box, as it shows bias (Bill Simmons, Michael Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith were all sick that day of class). But even I broke that rule during this game. When a special education student would look around at the crowd with the ball, wondering what to do next, I would smile and channel Dave Chappelle imitating Prince — “Shoot the J, SHOOT IT!!!” When the ball would hit nothing but net I would put down my notepad and begin clapping.
Because after all, this was fun. When American Canyon’s Ian Duffield hit a long-range Steph Currylike shot, you couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear as immediately his teammates forgot about defense in order to give more handshakes in celebration.
Taylor even got into the action with the school marching band, giving a thumbs up in approval and doing a little jig with them on the sideline.
You had to feel good, because high school, well, it’s tough. Special education students and general education students, we all
have things to feel embarrassed about for whatever reason. But when it’s really noticeable, it can be cruel as some kids can often be jerks. All you want to do is just fit in somehow, have someone ask, “How’s your day going?” You don’t know that in a few years when you go off to college, nobody really cares if you’re popular or not.
So when everyone on and off the court seemed to not care about cliques, popularity or levels of athleticism, even for a little while it felt right.
Jimmy Larson, an American Canyon baseball player who served as one of the team’s captains, said one of the best things about the event was getting to know some kids on campus that might have been unapproachable in the past.
“We have a huge bond now,” Larson said. “Every time someone makes a shot in practice, we all get real excited. But it’s been cool getting to know some of these guys that normally don’t say much. Instead, now we are dabbing each other and shaking hands all the time.”
American Canyon teacher Melissa Shimer explained before the event,
“It wasn’t just a great thing for the special education players, but also the other players. It helped bridge the gap and spread unity between the two groups and boost school culture.”
One of the highlights of the contest came with about a minute left. Standing at half court, Dunstan seemed to be in a daze looking out into the crowd, as if asking, “What’s going on?” When his Benicia teammate P.J. Morgan gave him the ball after a rebound, Dunstan initially started walking toward the opposing basket. Morgan helped turn him around and seconds later Dunstan tucked the ball in one arm and started skipping toward his own, correct hoop. “I got this,” he seemed to say.
Guided by Zimmer and Taylor, Dunstan walked into the key as the noise grew and grew until it roared when he banked in a shot in his first attempt.
McCausland, who hit a number of layups himself, was pumped up after the game ended while being interviewed by yours truly.
“I shoot the hoops! I shoot! And it was awesome,” McCausland said with delight. “It was cool. Basketball!”
McCausland was then asked what his favorite part of the experience was.
“The practices were incredible. They were amazing,” McCausland shouted. “Playing with my friends and my crew … they were all very nice.”
Because sometimes there is something you can make even better than a basket.