Ray Duckler: Unifying, on and off the court
From left: Bow High School Special Education Director Dan Ferreira, special education helper Elyse Seward, junior Rebecca Rotman, senior Alexis Krause, and coach Jim Kaufman cheer after JJ Chern scored his first basket during the school's coed unified basketball team's game on Tuesday, January 28, 2014. The program, one of 24 in the state, is in its first year at Bow and pairs mainstream students with developmentally disabled students to play on a team.
ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff
Bow High School sophomore Jason Smick, right, passes the ball to sophomore Keith Descoteaux as senior Alexis Krause, left, and junior Sarah Lane keep an eye out for errant balls as the school's coed unified basketball team practiced before their first home game on Tuesday, January 28, 2014. The program, one of 24 in the state, is in its first year at Bow and pairs mainstream students with developmentally disabled students to play on a team.
ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff
Bow High School junior Sarah Lane high fives freshman Jack Rich as he sat down next to freshman Zach Jukoski, middle, at the beginning of half-time of the school's unified basketball program's first home game on Tuesday, January 28, 2014. The program, one of 24 in the state, is in its first year at Bow and pairs mainstream students with developmentally disabled students to play on a team.
ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff
Last Tuesday, Sarah Lane had enough dishes to fill a kitchen cabinet.
She dished the basketball to Zach Jukoski and she dished it to Jack Rich. She dished it to Hunter Murray and Keith Descoteaux and Jonathan Chern.
That’s why Lane left the Bow High School varsity team in favor of the school’s new Unified Basketball program, which combines students with and without intellectual disabilities.
She left to pass a basketball – and so much more – to teammates who, without this officially sanctioned coed program, would not be part of this mainstream mix.
“It’s been really rewarding,” said Lane, a junior at Bow High. “It’s a great way to keep playing the sport of basketball, but I also feel like you’re doing something bigger than that.”
The list of teams in the league, in its third year, keeps growing, up to 31 this season from 24 last year. And Gary Mayo, a member of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Unified Sports Committee, hopes the number rises to 40 next season.
He’s doing his part. He sat in the stands last week filming the second game in Bow’s history, a 34-31 loss to Stevens High. His plan: Show the principal at his hometown high school in Lebanon that Unified Basketball is the way to go.
“It’s a win-win,” said Mayo, a 1973 Bishop Brady High School graduate. “It engages more students in extracurricular activities and fosters relationships. It’s changing the culture on how we do things here.”
Mayo’s recording will reveal a competitive organization, with league standings and a state tournament at the end of the season, reserved for the best teams. Just like any other sport under the NHIAA umbrella.
It will showcase players like Lane and junior Rebecca Rotman, another girl who played varsity ball last year before opting to switch teams.
“What we wanted out of basketball was taken out, and this puts it all back in,” Rotman said. “It puts the fun and love of the game back in.”
No one showed that love more than Jukoski, a freshman with a sweet jumper and passionate fist pump. He did a lot of fist pumping Tuesday, scoring a team-high 17 points.
Jukoski and four others are known as the Unified athletes, the kids who work with players like Lane and Rotman, known as the team Partners.
The Unified players are autistic or have Asperger’s or another intellectual challenge, but they ran and jumped and played before more than 50 fans, in a gym with yellow banners on one side, signifying state championships for Bow boys’ teams, and blue banners on the other side, representing school championships for the girls.
Now Bow’s Unified team is trying to add another banner, one that might combine yellow and blue for a team that combines genders and so much more.
“I felt good shooting the ball and being on defense,” Jukoski said, moments after the game.
He teamed with Rich, who added 10 points, to form The Zach and Jack Attack. NHIAA rules say teams must have at least three Unified players on the court at a time.
Beyond that, the NHIAA does not dictate how teams spread their shots around, leaving that decision to each coach. Bow’s coach, athletic director Jim Kaufman, and his assistant, Dan Ferreira, director of special education in Bow, encourage their Unified players to shoot all the time, unless Bow falls behind by at least eight points.
That never happened in the Falcons’ last game, meaning Partner players took care of all the dishing. In fact, the most exciting moment of the game occurred at the end of the first half, when Tucker Johnson fed Chern with the digital clocks – on each side of the court, near all those championship banners – racing toward triple zeroes.
Chern missed his shot in the lane, but Johnson grabbed the rebound and fed Chern for another try.
The ball curled through the net, the buzzer sounded and the crowd erupted.
Johnson played junior varsity ball the past two years, then left that program to focus on football and join the Unified team. He commands respect, a member of the Student Athletic Leadership Council, bearlike in size and sporting a quick smile.
“I think it’s great,” Johnson said. “It gives a chance to kids who might not play sports to play and compete in front of a huge crowd. It teaches you patience, and it teaches you to be more understanding.”
Alexis Krause also played junior varsity and varsity ball the past two years. She found those levels 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. “Patience is a big thing that we all have to work on as Partners.”
Krause and the rest of the Partners interviewed all said the same thing, that they’re getting as much, perhaps more, out of this than the Unified athletes.
And they can thank Jack Rich and his parents, Jean and John, for any personal growth.
It was the Rich family who approached Kaufman last spring, looking to help Jack play once he began high school.
Why, Kaufman wondered, merely place Jack on the junior varsity team, at the end of the bench? Why settle for making him team manager?
Why not tap into the unselfish spirit that Kaufman knew moved through his hallways, and let Jack don the yellow and blue?
“It’s so cool for him to be able to play for an official high school team,” Jean said, her eyes getting moist. “That’s his love, basketball, and now he can put on a Bow uniform and represent his school.”
Tuesday was a tough loss, dropping Bow to 0-2 in its inaugural season. Jack’s lay-in near the end pulled the Falcons to within three, but time ran out.
Afterward, Jack and Zach faced the media, me, and answered the tough questions.
Any comments after such a painful loss?
“It’s been going pretty good,” Jack said. “I’m having a good time.”
“I think we’re going to be improving,” added Zach. “We just need practice.”