Members of the Royal Oak High and West Bloomfield High Unified basketball teams come together Jan. 17 after a game at Royal Oak. The Oakland Activities Association has partnered with Special Olympics of Michigan to become a member of Unified Champion Schools, a project that brings students with and without intellectual disabilities together for athletic competition.

Members of the Royal Oak High and West Bloomfield High Unified basketball teams come together Jan. 17 after a game at Royal Oak. The Oakland Activities Association has partnered with Special Olympics of Michigan to become a member of Unified Champion Schools, a project that brings students with and without intellectual disabilities together for athletic competition.

Photo by Donna Dalziel


OAA working to promote inclusivity through unified basketball league

By: Jacob Herbert | C&G Newspapers | Published January 30, 2020

 West Bloomfield’s Ben Musiol works on shooting with Lakers coach Jennifer Kozicki. All 10 OAA unified teams will compete in an end-of-season tournament at 10 a.m. Feb. 22 at Troy High.

West Bloomfield’s Ben Musiol works on shooting with Lakers coach Jennifer Kozicki. All 10 OAA unified teams will compete in an end-of-season tournament at 10 a.m. Feb. 22 at Troy High.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

Advertisement
Advertisement

OAKLAND COUNTY — There are few greater feelings than being able to represent your school. Throwing on your school colors and running into a gymnasium full of cheering fans is one of the more euphoric feelings out there.

Unfortunately, not all students are given the opportunity to experience that joy, and Special Olympics of Michigan has swooped in to help.

In March of 2019, athletic directors from the Oakland Activities Association attended the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administration Association conference.

It was there that they learned about Unified Champion Schools, which is an education-based project that uses the sports and education programs of Special Olympics to activate young minds across the country.

A nearby association, the Kensington Lakes Athletic Association, had partnered with Special Olympics of Michigan to form a unified basketball league.

The league pairs male and female students with and without intellectual disabilities on teams together for athletic competition.

“They gave a great presentation, and we just got motivated to do it,” Royal Oak High Athletic Director Donald Watchowski said. “It promotes inclusivity, leadership and unification amongst our students. It just really lends itself to a positive school climate here.”

The OAA currently has 10 participating schools. Troy Athens, Clarkston High, Birmingham Groves, Lake Orion High, North Farmington, Birmingham Seaholm, Southfield A&T, Troy High, West Bloomfield High and Royal Oak signed off for the inaugural season. There are other leagues in the surrounding area that also have teams.

The games are played just prior to whatever varsity basketball games happen to be taking place that night. Two general education unified partners and three special education athletes for each team are on the floor at all times.

The teams play four six-minute quarters.

“It’s the first thing I’ve done in a school where it’s absolutely all positive,” Royal Oak Unified coach Jim Hutton said. “There hasn’t been a negative thing yet.”

At the end of a six-game regular season, all 10 teams will participate in a postseason tournament starting at 10 a.m. Feb. 22 at Troy High.

In order to help make the league possible, the OAA and Special Olympics Senior Director of Program Leadership Dan Ekonen formed a relationship to help facilitate league needs.

Ekonen and Special Olympics of Michigan have helped by providing training for coaches and athletic directors. Special Olympics also supports the schools by providing funding for equipment, uniforms, transportation and other game-associated costs. Each school in the OAA was given $2,000 to help cover these costs.

Ekonen said he has seen nothing but positive influence in these schools since this initiative started.

“What’s great about it, it’s the students that embrace it and say this is a part of our school,” Ekonen said. “When it’s the students that drive it and embrace it, it makes it much more powerful. It really is changing mindsets and attitudes of all students.”

Junior Ellie Hahn, who is a general education student on Royal Oak’s team, has also seen nothing but positivity. Everyone involved treats it with the utmost importance.

“Every parent or friend I’ve had come to these games. They’ve just been so happy, like they’ve seen a new reclaimed hope for the world we live in,” said Hahn, who helped form the high school’s unified bocce ball team. “I think inclusion and having everyone play is really cool. They’re the athletes, and we’re just here to help out.”

West Bloomfield Unified coach Jill VanAntwerp said her favorite part is seeing the happiness beaming off the faces of the kids.

During a Jan. 17 game at Royal Oak, the West Bloomfield girls varsity basketball team could be heard all around the gym chanting, “Let’s go Lakers,” as the unified team battled with Royal Oak.

The Ravens and Lakers played to a 28-28 tie thanks to a buzzer beater from Royal Oak’s Alyssa Suisham.

“Working with these kids is just a joy,” VanAntwerp said. “It makes me happy to see them happy.”

In just a short time, Watchowski said, the unified basketball league has shown great influence on everyone involved. As the program enters year two and beyond, the hope is to continue to gain more traction in the form of schools, not just in the OAA, but statewide.

“It’s kind of interesting because if you attend a game or you see it live, I think you walk out of there knowing what inspires people to do it and why we do it,” Watchowski said. “In its simplest, it’s the ability for everybody in the gym to smile.”

To learn more about Unified Champion Schools, visit somi.org/schools.

Advertisement
Advertisement