Her back almost at a 90-degree angle to her chair’s back, Kelly Griffin leaned in toward the action on the court.
The small smile never left Griffin’s face as she watched her Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake teammates play in a recent basketball game. In her two years playing for the Spartans, that grin has rarely left her face.
“Representing my school,” she said is the reason for her prideful look, a sentiment shared by many scholastic athletes.
Griffin plays unified basketball, which schools from Section II have competed in for three years. The sport is a joint venture between the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics New York that brings together players from special-education backgrounds and the general school population to play in a competitive environment against rival schools. Twenty of the state’s 56 unified teams are from Section II, numbers that have both grown since the program started in 2014 with a dozen teams, all from Section II.
Burnt Hills started its unified basketball team for the 2015 season. For Griffin, who had tried out for school teams in the past and regularly attends varsity Burnt Hills games as a fan, hearing the Spartans had a team meant for her the chance to fulfill a passion.
“I think she was the first one at our school to know about it, besides our athletic director,” Burnt Hills coach Nicole Passante said. “She definitely knew about it before I did.”
Her excitement has not waned.
“Kelly’s always been social. She’ll go right up and say ‘hi’ to people,” Passante said. “But now the first thing she wants to talk about with a teacher, a fellow student — anyone — is her unified basketball team.”
Griffin, a junior, is one of several hundred unified basketball players set to play today at Shenendehowa in the section’s consolation and championship games, the culminating event for the sport’s 2016 season, which started with its smile-filled games in early May. All of the area’s unified teams will gather for the games, creating a raucous environment for a tournament like the ones Griffin wants to report about when she’s an adult.
“I want to go to sports games and write about them,” Griffin said.
For now, Griffin’s writing focuses around her experiences playing unified basketball. She’s completed several chapters detailing her still-unfolding tale, making Griffin one of the many unified players with a story worth telling.
Unified games, broken into two 16-minute halves, are played with two general population students on the court and three students with special needs, with that latter group including players with autism, Down syndrome, and a variety of other mental and physical conditions.
Games have a recreational feel to them and team scores rarely get past the 40s, but game play is authentic with attentive referees and general population athletes — some playing hoops for the first time, some stars in other sports — helping to keep play moving.
For unified players, a first season playing for a school team is usually a first time playing any type of organized basketball. That unified teams only get a few weeks of practices before games start leaves coaches like Schenectady’s Carol Lupo crunched for time. Lupo, who has coached hoops at a number of levels, said she doesn’t use basketball-specific terms with her unified team in order to keep confusion to a minimum. Instead, what she focuses on at practices is building her players’ skills and making sure they value sharing the ball.
“We work on fundamental concepts and let the game unfold from there,” Lupo said.
Two of Schenectady’s rookies this spring are senior Gerardo Pedragon and junior Cheyenne Ortiz. Pedragon has been one of Schenectady’s best interior offensive players, while Ortiz is an energetic defender.
“We all play different styles and work in different ways,” Pedragon said of the unified Patriots. “It’s about finding chemistry, finding out our strong suits and what are not our strong suits.”
“It’s all about the team — about helping your team,” Ortiz said.
Follow the leader
Basketball has long been a passion for Paul Macaluso, a sophomore on Shenendehowa’s team. He enjoys watching the NBA playoffs, more so when Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat are involved.
Macaluso is one of Shenendehowa’s top players. He operates from the foul line, a point from which he is a capable shooter and able to get to the rim. The look of concentration he wears on his face is in stark contrast to teammate and friend Charlie Valenty, a junior who enthusiastically plays to the crowd after made 3-pointers.
“The teamwork” is Macaluso’s favorite part of basketball, but Shenendehowa coach Carley Galarneau looks to Macaluso as one of her team’s captains.
“They follow his lead,” she said of Macaluso’s teammates. “You can tell.”
Galarneau also looks at Macaluso as something else. He’s one of the best examples, she said, of how the unified basketball program helps its athletes. When Macaluso joined the Plainsmen’s team last year, Galarneau said he mostly kept to himself. That’s changed, both on the court and in the classroom.
“He’s opened up socially and he’s more motivated,” Galarneau said. “He’s found his own a little bit. He’s got that confidence off the court now.”
Confidence was never an issue for Saratoga Springs’ Tiffany Weiler, a senior who has played unified hoops for multiple years.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her not smiling,” Blues Streak coach Mike Hall said.
“She’s a team player, too,” said senior Elliott Hungerford, a teammate of Weiler’s who played on the Blue Streaks’ ice hockey team this past winter. “Off the bench, she’s always giving out high-fives and on the court she’s always passing the ball.”
What Weiler does best is follow instructions and help her teammates. She regularly points out to other players where they need to be on the court. Off the court, Hall said Weiler plays a similar role for her teammates, many of whom she shares a classroom with during the school day.
“She’s a bit like our mother hen,” Hall said.
That’s a role she embraces.
“What I like best about basketball is getting to help my team out, encouraging [my teammates] to make their baskets, and to hope the best for my school,” Weiler said.
No Average Joe
When Mohonasen coach Ben Pierson helped start his school’s team for the 2014 season, Joe DelBrocco was one of his first recruits.
“He’s a student that’s not really interested in sports, someone that wouldn’t really ever do anything like this — but I really didn’t have to talk him into doing this,” Pierson said.
It was a good move for Pierson to secure the services of DelBrocco, whose younger brother Mike keeps Mohonasen’s scorebook. DelBrocco makes his contributions on the court, but also brings some flair before the team’s home games. That’s when he plays the national anthem on his guitar, which he’s been playing for several years.
Sometimes, Pierson said, DelBrocco will sneak out one of his guitar magazines to read when he’s on the team’s bench. Mostly, though, he keeps his eyes on the action.
“He loves it,” DelBrocco’s brother said. “When he scored for the first time this season, that was all he talked about at home.
“‘I scored, I scored.’”