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New inclusive basketball league: Unified Sports

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Albany/HV: New inclusive basketball league: Unified Sports
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At first glance, there was nothing odd about Tuesday's high school basketball practice at Columbia High School. But if you were standing on the sidelines, you might have suddenly realized: it's no longer high school basketball season.

That doesn't matter to the twelve athletes on Columbia's newest co-ed basketball team. Their sport isn't focused on seasons, but rather on inclusion, diversity, and acceptance.

"It's important to recognize differences, absolutely," said first-year player Isaiah Sowter. "If you just ignore differences, then you'll never be able to understand anybody."

Isaiah should know. He's been different for a long time.

"I have a social disorder. I have Asperger's," he said.

The autism-spectrum disorder can make it tough for others to understand Isaiah's behavior. He has a hard time naturally understanding body language, and had to enroll in speech therapy classes as a child to help cope with that barrier.

"It's (also) a lot to do with how to act properly, socially," he said. "Being able to understand when to stop talking and let other people speak."

It can also lead to what Isaiah calls "spazzing out" on the basketball court: intensely screaming at referees or teammates, when he might disagree with someone. But it doesn't affect his playing the game.

"Two points is two points," he says with a smile.

That's part of the reason behind a new partnership between the New York Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHAA) and the Special Olympics of New York. Their newest program is called "Unified Sports," and it places intellectually-disabled students alongside non-disabled peers, in competitive interscholastic basketball league.

From Glens Falls to Guilderland, 12 high schools will field teams, in a seven-game season culminates in a day-long festival, at Glens Falls Civic Center in May.

"'Unified Sports' is about eliminating a lot of the stigma, and realizing that we're all the same, and on the same team," said Special Olympics International CEO Janet Froetscher on Tuesday. ""The kind of environment you will see out on that basketball court, where people play together and respect each other, is the kind of environment our youth will create for us in the future."

From Glens Falls to Guilderland, twelve area high schools will field "Unified Sports" teams. The seven-game season culminates in a day-long festival, at Glens Falls Civic Center on May 31st.

The program is the first of its kind in New York State. But that hasn't gone to the head of the players.

"I wouldn't consider myself a pioneer," says non-disabled junior athlete Austin Smith. "I'm just someone who enjoys the game of basketball. I was given the opportunity to play for this team, and I went for it."

"I get to be part of a group of people that can inspire other people to be a little more tolerant," says Isaiah Sowter, "or to give other people new opportunities."

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