A first for New Jersey: Rowan students shoot hoops with Special Olympics athletes in Unified Sports club

For five Saturdays between Feb. 18 and March 31, 60 Rowan students have played alongside 28 Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) athletes in a five-on-five, eight-team basketball league. Rowan’s Unified Sports club is the first program of this nature in New Jersey and the first officially in college club programs in the nation, according to SONJ.
Team coach Artie Kaylor paced back and forth on the edge of the Rowan University Recreation Center court. He knew his team was tired, but there was less than five minutes in the fourth quarter and the Golden Knights were losing 20-16. The Rowan senior called a time out.
Kaylor’s inspirational words seemed to help. With less than 40 seconds to go, the Golden Knights had pulled ahead of the White Tigers 22-20. The edges of the court began to crowd as other teams and spectators awaited the exciting finish.
Five, four, three… the White Tigers hit a two-point shot at the buzzer to tie the game. The crowd went wild.
There are no overtime periods in Rowan’s new Unified Sports basketball league, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any winners.
For five Saturdays between Feb. 18 and March 31, 60 Rowan students have played alongside 28 Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) athletes in a five-on-five, eight-team basketball league. Rowan’s Unified Sports club is the first program of this nature in New Jersey and the first officially in college club programs in the nation, according to SONJ.
The players
Players for the Rowan Unified Sports basketball league are purely voluntary. Organized by Rowan’s Assistant Director for Sport Clubs and Youth Programs Gary Baker, more than 50 Rowan students attended interest meetings in early February to discuss expectations and rules – for some, it was their first introduction to the Special Olympics organization.
“I had a Special Olympics parent stop me on the first day and say how she was surprised to see so many Rowan students required to be there,” said Assistant Vice President for Student Life Tina Pinocci. “I told her that none of our students are required to be here. They don’t receive any college credit for this. They’re here because they want to be here.”
The SONJ athletes travel to Rowan from throughout South Jersey, from Cherry Hill to Turnersville to Elmer. According to SONJ, a Special Olympics athlete is classified as anyone with an intellectual disability. There are more than 24,000 registered Special Olympics athletes in New Jersey. SONJ covers all costs for all athletes, including training, accommodations, food and uniforms.
The skills
The skills in the league – for both SONJ athletes and Rowan students alike – range from basketball newcomers to Rowan’s varsity basketball forward Tom Paterno.
SONJ athlete Brooke Creighton from Pitman scored 14 points alone in the first day’s scrimmage game, while Rowan’s Leigha Bannon has never played competitive basketball before.
“I’ve only played soccer,” said Bannon, a sophomore marketing major from Galloway. “This is a very different sport. But I’m having a lot of fun and I love the energy of the league.”
While skills are important, the players’ dedication is what makes them shine on the court.
“Mike has nonstop hustle,” said Kaylor about his SONJ teammate Mike Nichols from Glassboro. “He loves defense. He knows he needs help shooting, but he plays every minute with all of his heart.”
The roles
Each team is comprised of at least three SONJ athletes. Rowan students serve as players, coaches, referees, scorekeepers and clock operators – some doubling up on roles.
Coaches, like Kaylor and Paterno, explain game rules and strategies, cheer on their players, make substitutions and ensure that three SONJ athletes are on the court at all times. As Kaylor, a health and exercise science major from Middletown, discovered, being a coach sometimes means motivating exhausted players to keep going.
“We unfortunately had an injury during the first game and one of our Special Olympics athletes couldn’t play,” Kaylor said. “So that meant that our Special Olympics athletes had to play the entire game. They were tired. They wanted a break. But I told them they tried their hardest the whole game – no time to quit now.”
The Golden Knights went on to win their second game, 29-25.
The parents
Rowan students and SONJ athletes aren’t the only ones looking forward to Saturdays at Rowan. Each week, the athletes’ parents, family members and friends line the perimeter of the court cheering on the teams.
Sue Bruner, mother of Cody, a four-sport SONJ athlete who competed for Team NJ in the 2010 USA National Games in Lincoln, NE, recognizes the benefits of Rowan’s Unified Sports league.
“I think it’s great,” Bruner, a Barrington resident, said. “Cody’s already meeting new friends and playing at a higher competition level. He talks about the league all week. He feels like he belongs here at Rowan.”
Cody, Sue and her husband, Barry, all attended the first training session that SONJ conducted with Rowan students to explain the history of the organization, goal of the league and rules of the game.
“It’s amazing how many kids from Rowan came to support these kids,” Bruner said. “I told the students at the training meeting, ‘I don’t know you and I’m already proud of you.’”
The reward
Juggling classes, assignments, extracurriculars, and sororities and fraternities with a new Unified Sports club may be stressful for some, but the Rowan students are dedicated to the league.
Juan Lopez, a sophomore Law/Justice major from Maywood, joined Unified Sports because he wanted to belong to a club that required more than just attending meetings.
“I love it,” Lopez said. “I was so excited to get our uniforms. I didn’t go out Friday night because I was worried that I wouldn’t wake up in time for the games the next day.”
Rowan football’s offensive lineman Kyle Jones beams when he speaks about his interaction with the athletes.
“This is a perfect opportunity to learn and be a part of something great,” the sophomore athletic training major from Franklinville said as he waved goodbye to one of his teammate’s parents. “On the first day, I tried to learn as many names as possible. I want to make sure they’re having fun. I also introduce myself to their parents. I really enjoy this. This is definitely not the last time I’m involved with Special Olympics.”
The future
After the success of the spring basketball league, Rowan’s Unified Sports club plans to organize a fall eight-week soccer league. The hope is to generate a year-round sport club managed by Rowan students. Future sports can include anything team based, such as flag football, volleyball, swim relays or softball.
“This is an awesome experience for our students to be a part of from the start,” Baker said. “After this initial interest, I’m expecting that the club will grow to where we’ll have to start turning students away.”
SONJ also plans to use the Rowan Unified Sports club as an example for other state institutions and Special Olympic branches.
“The model that you started here will go national,” SONJ President Marc Edenzon told the Unified Sports club on the first day.
The final home games will take place on Saturday, March 24, between 10 a.m. and noon in the Rowan Recreation Center gym. Spectators are welcome and encouraged to attend. The league will end with an exhibition game at the Wildwood Convention Center on March 31, as part of the SONJ Spring Sports Festival Basketball State Tournament.
To learn more about Rowan's Unified Sports club, visit its blog at http://rowanunified.blogspot.com/.
About Special Olympics New Jersey
Special Olympics New Jersey provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community. For more information on Special Olympics New Jersey, visit http://www.sonj.org or call 609-896-8000.