Niyo: Unified Sports initiative for special needs kids pays off

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Novi’s Sujay Kolli dribbles against Brighton in the Kensington Lakes Athletic Association Unified tournament Thursday at Novi High School.

Novi — "Unified" certainly has a nice ring to it.

But all this background noise, that seems to resonate even more. The bouncing basketballs, the coaches calling out directions, the teammates shouting words of encouragement, and, more than anything, the cheers rippling from one end of the Novi High School gymnasium to the other.

This was the surround-sound scene that played out Thursday, as the Kensington Lakes Activities Association held a first-of-its-kind tournament at Novi, featuring 10 schools and more than 250 kids. It was a showcase event for the KLAA’s Unified Sports initiative, which offers students with special needs and disabilities a mainstream opportunity to compete alongside some of their general-education peers.

And as more and more schools join this crowd, finding a competitive balance that’s growing more elusive these days amid the pressures squeezing youth sports from all sides, there is something to be seen and heard here, without a doubt.

That’s one reason why Mark Uyl, finishing up his first year as executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, was among the spectators Thursday. It’s also why Brian Gordon, the Novi athletic director, was happy to play the role of a busy host, scurrying back and forth between two gyms with four concurrent games over the four-hour tournament.

“Too often in this day and age, people tend to get wrapped up in what they feel is the importance of getting kids winning and moving on and playing at the next level and all that other stuff we get at the high school level,” Gordon said. “With this, everybody is winning in every situation. And the smiles on the faces of the kids … I would challenge anybody to walk out of here and not have a tear in their eye. Because it is just such a powerful, powerful thing.”

Event’s scope stands out

It is, in ways big and small, though for most of the participants Thursday, it was the sheer size and scope of this event that truly stood out.

Unified sports are just a few years old at the high school level here in Michigan, with the state’s Special Olympics program joining forces with the MHSAA and member schools — providing fiscal support, in-service training and more — to form what Uyl describes as a “three-legged stool” partnership. But the KLAA initiative, spearheaded by Brighton AD John Thompson, with 10 of the 16 league schools now offering unified hoops, is a template that Uyl hopes others will copy.

“Today, this is really kind of the next step,” Uyl said.

Brighton Unified pump themselves up during the Kensington Lakes Athletic Association Unified basketball tournament at Novi high school.

At Brighton, they started in 2016 with a few dozen kids participating and now have as many as 80 students involved, more than enough to send three full basketball teams to the Special Olympics state finals in Kalamazoo this weekend. They also offer unified flag football in the fall and bocce ball in the spring.

At Novi, they’ve nearly doubled their numbers to 35 students in Year 2 of their unified basketball program, adding a second team and several more general-ed “partners” who take the court two at a time to help facilitate the play for the athletes with disabilities.

“And that’s where we’ve seen a lot of the growth,” Thompson said, “is with the rest of our student body, and kids saying, ‘Hey, this is really cool! I want to be a part of this. I want to give back.’ That’s really been phenomenal to watch.”

On the court behind him Thursday was a girl with a prosthetic leg who used to be self-conscious about her disability and refused to wear shorts. Now she wears them all the time. On the adjacent court was a student who barely touched the basketball last season. Thursday, he took — and made — consecutive jump shots to break open a close game, high-fiving players from both teams on his way back down court.

The court is his stage

And then there’s Kamren Martin, an 11th grader who plays for the Plymouth-Canton Stars, claims to be an aspiring rap artist and treated the court like his own stage at times Thursday. After the Stars capped a win over Wayne on Thursday, Martin called whole experience “amazing” and “a lot of fun,” before adding with a big grin, “I just can’t wait for next season.”

Plymouth Canton's Kamren Martin, left, and Franklin Unified's D.J. Rickett battle for the ball during the Kensington Lakes Athletic Association Unified basketball tournament at Novi high school.

“They can really play,” said Nylah Smith, a senior who played on the Novi girls’ varsity team and is one of the partner athletes. “We don’t make buckets. We just pass the ball and assist them if they need help. But they barely need us now. They’re like, ‘I got it. I got it.’ … This is their basketball game.”

Or as Andrew Saari, Novi’s coach, puts it, “It’s their time to shine.”

“For many of them, it’s the first opportunity to be a part of a team, especially a team associated with their high school,” Saari said. “You’ll see them wear their jerseys to school, you see them talking about it, bragging about it. It’s really special.”

Some of his players were nervous about playing in front of a crowd initially. But last spring, the team took the floor at halftime of a state boys’ semifinal between Novi and Holland West Ottawa at the Breslin Center and put on a show in front of 10,000 fans. “And honestly, it was everybody in the house cheering,” Gordon said.

Among them was Chuck Heil, whose son, Robby, who has Down syndrome, became something of a cult hero at Novi a couple years ago, punctuating his long stint as a “hydration manager” for the football team by scoring a touchdown in a game against South Lyon — a poignant moment that went viral nationally.

Robby is 19 now, and part of the Novi Adult Transition Center, a post-secondary life skills program. But the Eagle Scout who has taken up powerlifting as part of the Special Olympics program, isn’t ready to give this up just yet. Practice was scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Tuesday with students on mid-winter break, “but Robby wanted to be here at 1:45,” his father said, laughing.

“He loves hanging out with his friends here,” he added. “Robby is pretty outgoing. But I’ve seen several of the other students slowly emerge, and the whole inclusion part of this, it’s just a great thing.”

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not just the unified athletes getting something out of this.

Multiple games take place during the tournament.

Novi senior Trey Mullins, a track and cross-country team captain and recent MHSAA scholar-athlete award winner, didn’t need to be asked twice to volunteer. Mullins has been friends since kindergarten with Hunter Goodman, who was born with a genetic disorder but still participates on the Novi ski team and now joins his friends on the basketball court as well.

“It really makes me happy to see them happy, and just the sportsmanship out here is what I like best,” Mullins said. “They don’t think win or loss. It’s just go out there and have fun.”

And that perspective, says Kyle Henkel, another of the partner athletes on Novi’s team, is something that’s invaluable.

“I think it does give them some pride, to feel a part of something,” Henkel said. “But I’ve looked at life differently since I’ve played on the team. A lot of things I felt like I’ve taken for granted and … it has touched me, I can say that.”

Thompson hears those sentiments back in Brighton, where his school received national recognition — and an ESPN feature — last fall as a Special Olympics “Unified Champion School.” And he keeps hearing from other schools as well.

Steven McGhee, the superintendent of Harper Woods schools, is eager to start this in his district after talking to KLAA administrators. Uyl cites the programs popping up in and around Lansing and Grand Rapids And Thompson and JD Wheeler, the AD at Hartland, are scheduled to give a presentation on the initiative at next month’s Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association meeting in Traverse City.

‘Us’ opposed to ‘me’

“I think as we see this movement build and grow, you’re also seeing that network of Unified schools providing support to each other,” Thompson said. “It’s neighbor helping neighbor.”

Which really the essence of all this, everyone agrees.

“One of the cool things that comes with being a Unified school is the culture change that happens in your building,” Thompson said. “You have kids that maybe wouldn’t have spent much time talking to each other sitting together at lunch or stopping to talk to each other in the halls.

“And it goes beyond those kids that are involved in the program and changes the atmosphere in the school and even in the community. It makes people understand that it’s really more about ‘us’ as opposed to ‘me.’ It’s ‘Hey, we look out for everybody here.’”

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