Unified Sports basketball game brings Whitney, Rocklin together


Caden Evans high-fives teammates as his name is announced before the game. Photo by Deanna Payan.

Kaleb Ross dribbled down the court, set up 20 feet away from the basket and sunk a three-point shot. The crowd roared and Ross celebrated with a victory dance as he ran back up the court to play defense.

While this scenario may happen often for varsity basketball players, Feb. 25 was the first time Ross and his friends experienced being the center of attention at a high school athletic event. This opportunity came through the community’s inaugural Unified Sports basketball game. The website of the Special Olympics, the program’s sponsor, describes the game as a way to “[join] people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team,” in turn forming “a quick path to friendship and understanding.”

When varsity basketball head coach and special education teacher Nicholas French heard about the program last spring, he immediately knew he wanted to bring it to the school.

“Before I was at Whitney I had put some Special Olympics events together, and when I first came to Rocklin Unified I knew it was something the students in our district badly needed. Then when I met with the Northern California Special Olympics, they filled me in on the new Unified Sports program they were implementing in other schools in California and right then and there I knew we had to do this at our school for our kids,” French said.

At the start of this school year, French and Mr. Michael Gimenez took on a P.E. class specifically designed for these students and taught them how to play a variety of sports, focusing on basketball. After six months of practice, 11 kids finally had their chance to shine on the court against a similar group from Rocklin. Both teams were accompanied by varsity basketball members to help out with rebounding and passing, but all the shots were made by the first-time players.

“Going into the game I really wanted to make a three-pointer because Stephen Curry is a three-point specialist and he’s my favorite NBA player. When I finally made one it felt amazing and the fans went nuts for me,” Ross said.

As Ross said, the student section was in full swing Thursday night packing the bleachers and showing their support for the boys in a multitude of ways. Some dressed in costumes and led The Pride in chants while others held signs personalized for the players on the court.

“When I heard that our school was holding this event, I just had to be apart of it. I made each player a poster and passed them out in the student section because I wanted to make sure they all felt special and got the same things that other student athletes at our school get. After the game I gave the players their poster, and it was so cool to see how gracious they and their parents were. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else that night,” Emma Kachmar said.

As a result of the excitement and attention during and after the game, French has already started working on more Unified sporting events for the future. His hope is that as the awareness grows, they can create a league among high schools in the surrounding area with teams that would play each other in several different sports throughout the year. The next event French is working on is a Unified track meet to take place this spring.