Even a re­porter can cheer for this game

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - SPORTS - By Thomas Gase [email protected]­al­don­line.com @tga­sevth on Twitter

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.

Friends.

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