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Editorial: Unified basketball: What a terrific development!

At its best high school basketball is an exhilarating sport, combining a blend of athleticism, intensity and teamwork played out before noisy crowds packed elbow to elbow in the bleachers.

But it’s a cruel sport, too. With only a dozen or so kids on a team, and just five on the floor, high school basketball is inevitably a game of subtraction, of leaving kids who love the sport and want to play it languishing on the bench or alone at home, having failed to make the cut for lack of ability or ferocity.

All of which may make the growth of unified basketball the most positive development in high school sports since Title IX gave girls the same opportunities boys had long enjoyed.

Columnist Ray Duckler told the story of Bow High School’s new unified team in the Sunday Monitor, and how uplifting it was.

“It encourages more students in extracurricular activities and fosters relationships,” said Gary Mayo, a Bishop Brady graduate who serves on the committee overseeing the sport in the state. “It’s changing the culture on how we do things here.”

Unified basketball is coed, bringing boys and girls together. It also brings together students with and without intellectual disabilities. The former are called Unified players, three of whom must be on the court at all times. The latter are called Partners. In Bow’s case, the Partners are encouraged to pass, not shoot – to think of their teammates first.

Like other high school sports, unified basketball is overseen by the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, which keeps standings and runs a statewide tournament at season’s end.

And it’s growing. Last year there were 24 teams, this year 31 – and next year, perhaps as many as 40. Locally there are now teams from Bow, Concord, Gilford, Hopkinton/John Stark (speaking of unification), Merrimack Valley and Winnisquam.

Duckler’s column introduced readers to Unified players including Zach Jukoski, Hunter Murray, Keith Descoteaux and Jonathan Chern, all of them proud to wear Bow blue and yellow and represent their school on the court. May they all have a moment this season like Chern did, when he left the crowd buzzing with a last-second basket against Stevens.

Passing Chern the ball was Partner Tucker Johnson, who played two years of junior varsity basketball before switching to Unified. Alexis Krause, another Partner, made the switch after playing jayvee and varsity basketball and finding that experience, in Duckler’s words, a little overwhelming.

“I think it’s really good for us to come in and play with these kids and make friends with them, when otherwise we would not have done that,” Krause said.

“It teaches you patience, and it teaches you to be more understanding,” Johnson said.

In the end, despite Chern’s basket, Stevens beat Bow, dropping Bow’s record to 0-2. That didn’t faze Unified player Jack Rich. “It’s been going pretty good,” he said. “I’m having a good time.”

Shouldn’t all high school sports really be that fun and that simple? We are, after all, talking about games.

Varsity sports are and will long remain a terrific outlet for kids with the talent and temperament to play at that level. But in a sense – a very important sense – Bow’s unified team and the others like it are playing basketball at the highest level of all.

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