For many athletes on the hardwood, clear and concise instructional basketball is key to the fundamentals of the game. And it’s no different for Special Olympic athletes who participate in unified sports.
On Saturday, 12 of these players from all over the world revealed their talents in front of fans at the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game in Los Angeles. As part of the NBA’s All-Star community efforts, and joined by NBA and WNBA players and legends, the athletes were divided into two teams (orange and blue) made up of individuals with or without intellectual disabilities.
Showcasing the unifying power of sports since the first game held during the 2012 NBA All-Star Game, the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game creates a diverse and inclusive environment. For more than 40 years, the NBA and Special Olympics have partnered to bring basketball to Special Olympics athletes and events across the globe.
NBA All-Star and Special Olympics Global Ambassador Andre Drummond, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Lakers guard Larry Nance Jr., Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield, Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson and legends Dikembe Mutombo and Felipe Lopez participated in a basketball clinic, which took place before the game, and some even played in the game.
Drummond recently shared his struggles in school with bullying and why his support of Special Olympics is so meaningful, in an NBA film.
More than 1.2 million people worldwide take part in Special Olympics Unified Sports competitions.
Team member George Wanjiku of Kenya finished the game with six points. The 6-foot-8 center played on Saturday’s Orange Team and was the highest scorer in the 25-point team finish. The final score was 33-25, won by the Blue Team. Wanjiku was disappointed by the loss but ecstatic, saying the day was one of the “best days of his life.”
Translated by his coach James Okwiri, Wanjiku said he saw other athletes coming to play basketball and he got interested in playing basketball because of his height and new opportunities outside of his other favorite sport.
Wanjiku is an only child who lost both of his parents at the age of 10. He was raised by his grandmother, and he saved enough money to build a home for her after working at a construction company. Playing with Special Olympics for only four years, Wanjiku enjoys watching movies, traveling and meeting new people. In 2015, he participated in the World Summer Games in Los Angeles and since then, he has gained a lot of respect and admiration in his community.
Okwiri is looking forward to coaching Wanjiku more this year.
About 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports, breaking down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a really fun way. ESPN has served as the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports since 2013, supporting the growth and expansion of this program that empowers individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to engage through the power of sports.
Special Olympics athlete Jasmine Taylor finished with four points. The Florida native is a huge fan of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.
“It was good game,” she said. “I had fun playing.”
Phillipo Howery finished with four points and appreciated playing alongside one of his favorite players, Mutombo.
“It was pretty hard and crazy, but it was fun,” Howery said.
Howery is from one of the most inclusive high schools in the Arizona, if not all of the U.S. He will compete in the upcoming 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle from July 1-6.
Special Olympics coach Annette Lynch said the athletes were prepared.
“We’re only volunteer coaches. We can only come and volunteer over the weekend. So he only trains once a week,” Okwiri said. “It’s a high-performance situation. In Special Olympics, not always do the high-performing athletes become selected. I could not be more proud of them …”
The players were selected based on an application process, which included video interview submissions that included personal game highlights.
Lynch joined the Special Olympics in 1989.
“I was the first full-time woman in the sports department,” she said. “My background is certainly teaching and coaching, from junior high all the way up through Division I athletics. And I also had a three-year stint as a player on the U.S. team back in the ’60s. I brought together the player aspect, the teacher aspect, and the coaching aspect, and looking to professionalize what these athletes would get and certainly deserve. They deserve the best in coaching.
“Our goal was to showcase their skills, so that people would see what our athletes are capable of. Because they don’t, they many times speculate or they think they know, but they don’t know. We have such a range of ability level, from the superhigh level.”
According to its website, the Special Olympics is dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. In Unified Sports, teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, allowing practices and games to diversify and become more fun than challenging.