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Chain Reaction

Unified 5v5 basketball.jpg

There’s Special Olympics Unified Sports® and then, there’s the Special Olympics USA 5v5 basketball team. From the stands, it’s a bird’s-eye view of inclusion at play. It’s a live-action Rube Goldberg machine. With the intent of accomplishing a simple task, a Rube Goldberg machine depicts a chain reaction. Each action initiates the succeeding action, connecting individual events. A marble rolls down a ramp, which knocks over a domino, activating a pendulum to push a toy car. The toy car moves forward to bump a water bottle into a recycling bin.

On the court, it’s no different. It’s a varying succession of passes, blocks and rebounds to accomplish a very simple task, putting the ball through the hoop. The Special Olympics College Club at the University of Florida in Gainesville is 200 members strong. At the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin, club representatives compete in Unified basketball. Head coach Evan Combs initiates the chain reaction, he is the starting point for what comes next.

A sports manager for Special Olympics Florida, he has also volunteered with nearly every sport the organization has to offer. In 2022, Evan competed on the Special Olympics Florida flag football team at the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando. A good majority of that team remains intact, serving as different parts of their Rube Goldberg machine, now competing in the Special Olympics World Games.

“Bringing together people of all backgrounds is what coaching Unified sports is all about,” said Evan. “Our Unified basketball team consists of people of various genders, ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses and ability levels. Bringing that all together shows the transformative power of sports. In a world where many look at the differences among people, Unified sports teaches society that there is much more that brings us together than tears us apart.”

Unified partner Lysander “Ly” Reyes was born in the Dominican Republic. At the age of 8, he and his sister joined his mom in the United States. Enrolling in school, he did not know English, but adapted to his environment through total immersion. He implemented the same tactic at the University of Florida. A transfer student, he adapted to his new environment through social connection, through the Special Olympics College Club, where he met athlete Kiondre “Keke” Brown.

“We met through sports,” explained Ly. “All of a sudden, we became really good friends. I would have never been able to meet Keke without Special Olympics. The connection through sports was just the start.”

“The first time I met Ly, I thought he was very calm,” said Keke. “He had a great attitude. He doesn’t have to play with us, but he does it just to do it.”

Keke has played basketball since the age of 8; however, his introduction to Special Olympics was not until his freshman year in high school. At the age of 17, he joined Special Olympics, where he would meet his teammates, his best friends. He’s great at basketball, but that’s not what it’s about. For some of his teammates, basketball is a new endeavor. Unified partner Savana Brashears has spent the past year learning the sport from her team.

“The new challenge is learning basketball,” said Savana. “It’s a hard challenge, but it has pushed us to be closer. We have people come up to us and say we’re the definition of what a team is supposed to be, we’re a family.”

The quality of loyalty is one that is integral to a family unit. Those who know athlete Robert McCann best speak of his loyal, protective nature. A forward plays near the basket, rebounding and defending other players. Knowing Robert, it’s a position that best suits him, one in which he can protect his team. He has competed with Special Olympics since middle school, which was nearly 35 years ago. When he commits to something, it’s for the long haul. He works the graveyard shift with a construction company, completing the paperwork for building repairs and development projects. That job, he’s held for 27 years. In the hours outside of work, he’s focused on another commitment, his team.

“I like hanging out with them because they’re like family,” said Robert.

Before the start of the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin, the Special Olympics USA delegation traveled to their Host Town locations of Bremen and Bremerhaven, welcoming the group as extended family. During the visit to Bremen, delegates learned of the “Town Musicians of Bremen,” a German fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. It’s the story of four animals who, after a lifetime of mistreatment, run away to become musicians in Bremen. A bronze statue of the donkey, dog, cat and rooster is an iconic landmark of the cityscape. It is said that those who touch the front legs of the donkey could have a wish come true. As everyone lined up for their turn, athlete Ivory Richardson stood back.

“Everyone went up and made a wish, but Ivory refused,” explained Evan. “Because my wish already came true, I’m here playing basketball,” continued Ivory.

She’s waited a long time for this wish to come true. In the meantime, she’s been granting wishes for others. Ivory assists in running her own nonprofit, called Ivory’s Place. She and her family collect free school supplies to provide to students and to homeless shelters. This time, the universe returns the favor, granting her the opportunity to compete with her friends.

And first and foremost, they truly are friends. It’s an after-dinner walk for ice cream, it’s a phone call, it’s in the lives shared long after the final buzzer has sounded. A reality where individuals with intellectual disabilities are not included at the forefront of the conversation, is one that Special Olympics USA basketball does not know. They only know inclusion, setting a standard for how others should be treated.

“I’ve been able to learn a lot from the athletes and partners,” said assistant coach Samantha Meador. “What makes inclusion great is that everyone carries something invaluable to the whole.”

Without each piece of their machine functioning at its optimal capacity, the chain is broken, the reaction is lost. Their links are forged in a substance much stronger than any adhesive, it’s trust. It’s trust in each other’s strengths, in each other’s abilities and the strategic placement of those elements to ensure the goal is met.