Rhode Island schools 'Unified' in basketball

The Barrington (R.I.) Unified Basketball team, above. The program, a collaboration between the RIIL and Special Olympics, is in its third year and has grown to incorporate 25 basketball programs across the state. Scott Barboza/ESPNBoston.com

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Perhaps Special Olympics of Rhode Island Program Director Chris Hopkins said it best when discussing the relationship between the Rhode Island Unified Basketball League and the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.

“Sports comprise a great vehicle to do some great things in schools,” Hopkins said of the program which is in its fourth season.

The Unified Basketball League is a cooperative venture between the R.I. Interscholastic League and the Rhode Island Chapter of Special Olympics.

It comes under the Project Unify umbrella and is designed to allow people with intellectual disabilities to play sports with varsity student-athletes.

The program is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Education and other grants.

“As far as we were concerned, we thought it was a natural fit for our schools and us,” said R.I.I.L. Assistant Director Mike Lunnie. “The partnership with Special Olympics has been tremendous from the start. The program keeps growing each year because word gets out about the positive aspects of it.

“Being part of it on two sides (i.e. Lunnie was the Director of Athletics at Portsmouth High before he was appointed to his current position), I believe it’s one of the more important issues the league has taken on.”

How has the basketball program grown?

“In Year One we just had bowling,” said Hopkins. “In Year Two we had 10 basketball teams. In Year Three we had 10 volleyball teams and 18 basketball teams. This year, we have 25 basketball teams.

“It’s through word of mouth and through administrators and athletic directors who’ve espoused that it’s a viable program (which has led to the addition of more basketball teams).

“In many cases,” continued Hopkins, “it’s changed the entire climate of many of the schools.”

Lunnie expanded on Hopkins’ rationale for the acceptance and growth of the basketball program.

“The term we use is this program changes the culture within the schools,” he said. “It’s the vehicle schools use to provide acceptance for all of their students. It’s something all the students can rally around.

“When the first concept was thrown out, the focus was on providing opportunities for the kids. It transcended the sport. It’s not only a great opportunity for special needs students but also for the partners (i.e. the varsity athletes). It allowed (students with intellectual disabilities) to represent their schools in a way that couldn’t before this program was established.”

Because varsity student-athletes are on each team with students who have intellectual disabilities what’s the criteria for determining who’s allowed to participate?

“Our basic rule is you can’t be a varsity athlete in the sport in which you’re participating,” said Lunnie. “For basketball, you can’t be a varsity basketball player. Again, the perspective is you’re trying to keep the playing field as level as possible.

“It’s as much a positive experience for the partners as it is for the special needs players.”

Gary Martinelli, who coaches the Ponaganset varsity girls’ basketball team, also coaches the school’s Unified basketball team.

“I was a little apprehensive at first because I had just finished (coaching) basketball,” said Martinelli. “But that disappeared after I held the first practice.

“When I come to a practice and see them all light up, it’s fantastic. All you have to do is see the smiles on their faces. Ironically, before the kids used to call me Mr. Martinelli. Now, they call me ‘Coach.’ They love having a coach, being a team and riding on a bus. [The team] really has had a positive impact on our school this year.”

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact the R.I.I.L. approached Rhode Island Special Olympics regarding lending the proverbial helping hand.

“Right from the start, we wanted to bring athletes in our program together with high school students,” explained Hopkins. “In the second year, the Interscholastic League approached us and asked ‘What could we do together?’

“We decided to use both organizations to kick off this [basketball] program. At the time, there was money from the [U.S.] Department of Education that got this off the ground. It really was a good match between the R.I.I.L. and Special Olympics doing something for the first time in Rhode Island.”

The program has been such a success that, at times, the phone almost rings off the hook at the Rhode Island Special Olympics office.

“We continue to get inquiries around the country regarding how we got the program started,” Hopkins said. “We’ve been told by the National Project Unified office that we’re way ahead of the curve as far as our collaboration with the Interscholastic League is concerned and the fact we can provide a varsity experience for these athletes with intellectual disabilities.

“What we’ve done is what other organizations are trying to establish. Plus, we’ve already had inquiries from schools that might want to participate next year.”