MILLBURN, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – March Madness continues with the Final Four in college basketball.
Meanwhile, a high school team in New Jersey is gearing up for one of its biggest tournaments of the year. But as CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported, the focus of this unique program is more on acceptance than athletics.
At first glance, it may look like any ordinary high school basketball practice. But within their huddle, there’s extraordinary heart and a group of athletes taking giants strides together.
“I’ve always loved basketball,” player Vikram Ganti told Layton. “I’m really good at defense.”
“Point guard, shooting guard – basically I play them all,” said Ethan Solender.
They’re among the 15 players on Millburn High School’s “unified” basketball team, where students with special needs play with their peers, like Kate Schneider who wants to be a special education teacher.
“It’s really inclusive. We’re like one big family,” she said.
And Cameron Tuths, a teen training to become an EMT.
“Pure joy. When I see them smile after they make a basket, that’s the best part of my day,” he said.
Spend a couple minutes as a spectator and you’ll appreciate the patience and compassion displayed by the coaches, Layton reported.
“Kind of humbling, because they work so hard it,” coach Howard Shirley said.
They teach a lot more than the fundamentals of the game.
“Teamwork, camaraderie, growing community, and then working through adversity,” said coach Eric Cantagallo.
The program, sponsored by Special Olympics of New Jersey, is in its second year at the school. Without it, many of the kids might never get to experience the pride of putting on a uniform and playing an organized sport.
“They get to get involved with the sports pep rallies, they get to get involved with home games here, where the community comes out and supports them,” program coordinator Roger Askins said.
The students get together to practice once a week, and the friendships they’ve made and the fun they’re having extend far beyond the basketball court, Layton reported.
“I love every one of them. They’re all really important to me,” Schneider said.
“Everyone should just get along. It doesn’t matter if it’s a disability. But what does matter is you make great friendships. And that’s what I like,” said Solender.
They are each other’s biggest fans, learning skills that will last a lifetime.
If you’d like to bring this program to your school, click here to learn more.