In my last post, I mentioned the various big events I was going to this year. One of them was a big Unified basketball tournament held in Columbus, Ohio. At time of writing, I just got back yesterday. Without any further ado, here’s my story.
The Rundown: what is a Unified Team? Special Olympics, in the last two or three years, has been putting in a lot of hard work into making what they call “Unified” teams to compete against each other. Essentially, a Unified Team is made up of different people chosen to represent their city, country, or–in this case–home town’s university. The team members are a unified mix of Special Olympic “Athletes” and “Partners” who are what you would either call “normal or, to use a word that a lot of Autistics use, “neuro-typical”. This was my third time on a Unified Team, last year I’d also been both on one for the MLS All Star Games and for a tournament against Montreal’s Unified Team . Those were both in soccer, this was my first time in basketball.
More Rundowns: what kind of tournament was this? So, in the United States and Canada, college and university sports are a big deal. Aside from the usual scholarships and team rivalries, many college ballers play for their careers, hoping that they’ll be drafted by the NBA. However, many people who go to university don’t want to try and do that–or don’t have the ability–but they still want to play competitive sports. That’s what Intra-mural teams are for. NIRSA is an organization that holds official competitions for this league, as University teams from across the country play together in much the same way you’d see with NCAA College Ball.
Final Rundown: what position do I play? I play center: the big guy near the basket. While I can hit layups–and did score a few buckets during the tournament–my primary job is a jack-of-all-trades support role for my teammates. I play a lot of defense, grab the rebounds, pass to the guys who are good ball handlers and set up screens for them to get an open lane. For those who don’t know what a screen is, it’s basically when you run up to the defender and stand as a brick wall beside them, so your teammate can dribble on past them. Screens were something that one of my regular coaches really wanted me to work on, and use often during the tournament. I also tend to talk–and yell–a lot on the court, to communicate with my teammates. My coaches like it when I do that too.
For our Unified Tournament, Intra-mural players joined with Special Olympic athletes to represent their university. My team played for the University of Toronto. There were 6 Special Olympians, 5 Partners, 2 coaches from SO, and one from the U of T. Oddly, 4 of us athletes play on the same Special Olympic team together, and all of us knew one of the other athletes as well [he was also my teammate for the Unified Soccer Team]. Also, the two SO coaches were also chosen from my team as well. Going on trips like these, one of the the best things about it is meeting new people. However, it’s also really cool going with people you’re already close too. This trip had a nice mix of both.
Because our Unified team was kinda given the OK at the last minute, we only had 2 practices together before the big weekend. That sounds like it would have been really daunting, but it actually worked out. I couldn’t ask for better coaches: if it weren’t for two of the men leading us during those practices, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near able to go to this tournament. It was the previous years of work they put into me and countless other athletes–long before any of us knew that Unified teams were even a thing–that made me as good at basketball as I am today. But it’s more than that. I think it’s best summed up by an inspiration message I read, that was written on a white board inside my Tae Kwon Do class.
“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.”
Even though most of us only knew each other for two practices, it felt like we had been together a lot longer than that. We were friendly, casual, and understood how each other played. Our team had a real, natural chemistry. It takes a special kind of coaching to make that happen, in such a short time.
Excited at 6am to be going to Ohio
Our first game was on the Friday, the same day that we had to leave for Columbus. The whole trip was going to take around eight hours, and the schedule was pretty tight for when we got there [lunch and then the game]. I’m used to long bus trips because I regularly go on them to visit my family in Montreal, so I made sure to bring plenty of food and entertainment. I didn’t actually get bored on the trip, and I also spent a lot of time with on my friends as well. The Ohio countryside is really scenic.
What was Columbus like [to me]?
Columbus is beautiful. And the campus is Huge, with a capital H. They literally have their own, separate bus network to transport people across the university. That sounds frivolous and unnecessary, but it’s not. Architecturally, it gives off similar vibes to both the old-fashioned University of Toronto, and the modern Ryerson campus. Columbus itself is a lot like Chicago, but smaller. The people are like what Americans think Canadians are like: super friendly.
The stadium on campus where college football is played
[We’re politer than most, but we’re not that friendly. Especially not in Toronto]
Before any of us even got there, I and the people from my regular SO team knew that this was going to be the toughest game we’ve had yet. Frankly, there’s something wrong about our paperwork, and my local Toronto team has been put into a division where we beat other Ontario teams too easily. To the point that it’s not fair for either team. The hardest game we had before the Ohio tournament was an exhibition match against a team from a division higher than our own, and we still beat them [but it was close]. Even though I knew it was going to be hard, I was looking forward to the competition. Precisely because I knew it was going to be hard, and I was going to be in fair games against people who could beat us.
I was right. Even the divisioning round was fast-paced and competitive. The rules were as stringent as ever, basically full NBA rules. In the first couple minutes, I’d gotten 2 fouls for having my arms too far down on defense. You foul out at 5. The third foul I got was a complete accident: I tried to keep my arms up, but as soon as the guy came running at me, they came down as a reflex I didn’t even control. Coach benched me because he said that he didn’t want me to lose me in this game. The first half ended almost tied; a lot of the other team’s points came from free throws. I was very disappointed in myself for making such bad fouls.
The second half, I got better. I played defense with my arms high in the sky, which was something I never really had to do before. I got a couple shots in, and set up even more screens, rebounds and assists. I got one more foul–another reflex I couldn’t control–but that was it. We won our divisioning round, and I got over the disappointment I had in myself for the first half. We left the venue to go get some much needed sleep.
Our hotel rooms were, in a word, luxurious. The Hilton is a pretty decent place, after all. From experience, they really like to hook us up whenever we go on these big Unified trips. I’m pretty okay with that. It was also nice because my roommate was one of the guys I already knew.
view from my window
Our next game was in the late-morning. After a fresh-cooked breakfast served by the hotel [also luxurious] we got on the shuttle bus and readied ourselves. I feel like I played better the second game. Got less fouls, and made sure I kept my arms up. I also did everything my coach wanted: rebounds, assists, screens and made sure nobody drove by me. All of my teammates played equally well, and I could tell that the U of T guys were working really hard on the court. Still, we lost that game.
It was kind of a serene loss for me. Coach had been making sure that his athletes had “mental toughness”, and I’ve never been a sore loser, so anger wasn’t an issue. The weird thing was that I couldn’t think of anything I did wrong. Usually, whenever I lose–or fail at something–there’s always something I should have done that I beat myself up over. But this game… that didn’t happen. They just got in a couple shots more than us, and I played my best.
I was actually kind of glad that we lost a game. Remember earlier, when I said that my regular Toronto team has been placed in the wrong division, and are unfairly mismatched against the local teams? Well, this first division round game proved to me that the Ohio tournament, in fact, was a perfect match for us. The games were indeed, very fair. Our next game was the second round of the division prior to the the semi-finals. To put it another way: if we wanted to play more games on Sunday, we had to win this one. Yeah. The pressure just went up.
Fortunately, there was plenty of time to rest up before that game. The U of T Unified I Team enjoyed a relaxing sandwich lunch outside, in the beautiful Ohio weather. After that, some of my fellow Special Olympians went to the 3-point contest, which I didn’t enter because I don’t shoot well, in general. I wanted to go, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough room on the bus to bring an audience. I heard that most of my friends did well, and the one guy scored 0 points took it very well.
While the guys were making it splash on the court, I stayed by myself in the hotel room, gathering my energy by laying in bed watching the HD flatscreen. A few long, peaceful hours later, it was time to go back and play ball.
Another thing that’s great about my coaches is that they make sure we work hard. They never let us take it easy, even during warm up. That actually does make things easier in the long run, because it means that our warmup has us pumped up with our heads in the zone. At this point, I just sort of figured that I was going to play starter in every game [I did], so it made warmup kind of odd and even more intense. I knew that, as soon as it was done, I would be out hustling on the floor. Honestly, I think that helped me.
My nerves didn’t have time to decompress and slow down while on the bench, and when I finally did get called off the court, enough adrenaline was flowing that I kept at the ready. One thing I really enjoyed is that, somehow, I always felt “in the zone” during every game. I don’t know why that was exactly, but it’s one of the reasons I started doing sports in the first place. Focusing like that keeps my head quiet.
Oh, did I mention that we won the semi-finals? We got to play more games on Sunday.
In the evening, we were scheduled to have a party, where people from all over the States got to meet up, socialize and get to know each other. Like I said, one of the best things about these kinds of trips. But, there was still some time to kill before the party, which started at eight. So, about I joined about over half of my Unified Team in touring Columbus, looking for a book store to find merchandise in.
A lot of the campus is filled with vast, forested park lands. And because Ohio is a bit further south than Ontario, their grass was already green and the weather was perfect. Walking through Columbus made for another relaxing moment in between the intense games we played in.
Our party was a lot of fun. Special Olympic parties are always a lot of fun. Games, pizza, interesting people, everything. It was a cool hour and half of everybody celebrating what an awesome weekend we were having. I went to bed in a good mood.
The next day, we had another semi-finals. Same deal as before: if we lost, it would’ve been our last game. This time, the U of T guys really came through for us. They talked with us, and gave really helpful advice. Not as superiors, but as equals. You could tell they valued what we brought to the table, and saw us kind of like brothers: no different from them. My coach said that, in his eyes, there was no “Unified Team”, because there we weren’t two different things to unify. We were a group of guys, playing hard and working together. I’m glad to have met so many normal people–close to my own age–who see things like that. Makes me think that there are a lot of neuro-typicals like them our there, more than I may have realized.
We were up against the same team that we beat in the first seating round. You could tell that they were really playing to win, and played the scoreboard was even closer than last time. But us U of T players learned a lot over the weekend. One of the Athletes learned how to do man on man defense. Some of the others learned whether or not they could shoot 3’s in a game. I learned how to defend without getting fouls. We made it to finals.
The finals were held in a new court, fancier looking than the previous. We played 20 minutes after the last game, but I don’t think any of us were tired. For finals, we went up against a team that posed a new challenge. They didn’t really attack us in the paint–near the basket–but a lot of them were really skilled at sinking 3-pointers. It was something new to defend against. But, like I said, my team had a really good rapport, despite not knowing each other for that long. The score was mighty close the entire game, until the last minute that we manged to squeak by a 5-point lead. We won the finals. We won the National Championships.
I’m still wrapping my head around that, actually. I remember a lot of things about the weekend. I remember some of the conversations I’ve had, the people I met, certain things that happened in the games. I remember getting to cut down the net from the basket, which is apparently a tradition for the winning team.
I remember one of my coaches playing “We Are The Champions” on the bus ride home. I remember everyone on the bus being really tired, and quietly content the whole ride home. I remember thinking about how, years ago, I was hoping to one day make it to a big, national-level basketball game, and suddenly finding myself on the court–during finals–on defense.
Thank you. Thank you a thousand times to all the incredible people–from Special Olympics, the various universities, and so forth, who made this possible. Thank you to the incredible Chris from SO who accompanied us on the entire trip and made sure that our schedule was organized, paid for all of our food and worked through the entire weekend to make sure we were having the best time possible. Thank you to the U of T athletes who took time off [during EXAMS!] to try something new and play with some guys from Special Olympics. And, of course, thank you to the awesome coaches that have trained me and my friends for years, and got to come with us for the ride when that training really paid off.