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Special Olympics is a family affair

Tommy Shriver passes the ball to Edward Barbanell during the Unified Sports basketball game at the Galen Center. The Shriver family's dedication to service crosses all their generations. Tim Rasmussen/ESPN

As the players warmed up for Monday night's Unified Sports basketball game at USC's Galen Arena, a young girl in a blonde ponytail sat at the scorer's table, a Canon DSLR resting in her hands. Her focus shifted from player to player until her camera paused near center court.

"Hey Eddie, over here!" she yelled to a player on the yellow team, who turned and posed for her camera and then ran to snag a rebound. "I think I got the shot," said Molly Shriver to her younger sister, Ella, who was seated next to her, camera also in hand.

Ella raised her camera and called out to her older brother, Tommy, who was dressed in a yellow jersey and playing point guard on Eddie's team. In Unified Sports events at the Special Olympics, athletes with and without disabilities are paired together on the same team, an initiative created to foster inclusion and understanding. So while Monday's rosters included former NBA stars, local television celebrities and the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, one team also included Tommy Shriver, son of Mark Shriver and grandson of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics.

"This game is so much fun to be a part of," Tommy says.

It's been 53 years since Eunice Kennedy Shriver first invited 34 children with special needs to her farm in Maryland for summer camp, opening her heart and her home to families whose children were being excluded from participating in sports. Half a century later, it's clear the messages Shriver passed along to her five children are now being carried forward by a new generation with the same inclusive spirit and enthusiasm for the Special Olympics and its athletes.

As the game set to begin, one athlete in particular was trying to wave down the attention of Molly and Ella's uncle Tim Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics.

"Hey Tim, over here!" celebrity player Eddie Barbanell yelled toward his sideline, where Shriver sat alongside former NBA stars Sam Perkins and Dikembe Mutombo, a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics. "This game ..." Barbanell paused and pointed toward the sky for effect. Besides being a member of the Special Olympics international board of directors, Barbanell is also a trained actor with Down syndrome who's best known for his role as Billy in the 2005 film The Ringer. He knows how to command an audience. "This game's for Eunice!"

While the Shriver family has a deep connection to the Special Olympics, it is not one enjoyed by theirs alone. Throughout the night, the term "family" was used by athletes and celebrities alike to explain what drew them to the organization and what keeps them coming back year after year.

When Darian Packard, a cheerleading coach from Montgomery County, Maryland, heard the World Games were coming to Los Angeles, she lobbied the Special Olympics to include cheerleaders like her daughter, Joelle, 14. With the help of another parent volunteer, Packard helped organize 17 teams to travel to Los Angeles as part of the first cheerleading program at the Special Olympics World Games. Her youngest daughters cheer on a unified team with Joelle; her son, Easton, volunteers at basketball games.

David Egan, who played for the orange team, has been participating in the Special Olympics since he joined a swim team at eight years old. "My brother is here watching," Egan says. "But this is my family, too. There is no way to express what a family the Special Olympics is to me."

The game itself was a family affair for Mutombo, whose son, Ryan, played alongside him on the yellow team. And while the younger Mutombo said that he was simply having "a lot of fun", his dad assigned deeper meaning to the evening. "My son usually plays center, but today he had to play point guard," the former NBA star said. "He had to help his teammates score."

Several of the celebrities playing in Monday night's game also talked about the role the Special Olympics played in their connection to another family, the city of Los Angeles. When three-time NBA champion A.C. Green came to L.A. as a rookie in 1985, he says his involvement in the Special Olympics helped connect him to the city. In 1987, he served as honorary chairman of the Friends of California Special Olympics and he volunteered for the organization throughout his career.

"My first five years in town, L.A. was new to me and being connected to the Special Olympics affected me and shaped me," Green says. "Twenty years later, I remember the ceremonies at UCLA and the events on the weekends and how much they meant to me as an athlete playing here. I wanted to play in this game because it's meaningful and there is a purpose behind being here."

But while Monday night was the definition of fun and games, it was also very much a game, complete with dunks, three-pointers and one circus-like almost-half-court shot -- all made by Special Olympics athletes. The orange team won, by the way, 29-26.

"People don't realize how competitive these athletes are," says Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, who played for the yellow team. "They want to win. But they want to finish, too. Their spirit is amazing."

Rivers was first introduced to the Special Olympics while playing at Marquette and has remained involved for the past three decades.

"There is no way these kids get as much out of this as we do," Rivers says. "Everyone in L.A. should come out to this event and bring the family. You don't have to participate. You don't have to volunteer. But come to one game and you'll be hooked. I did, 32 years ago, and I'm still here."