‘Matchup of two heroes’: Unified basketball team plays police officers
Regardless of which team was dunking the basketball in Old Rochester Regional High School’s gymnasium on Monday night, Nov. 7, the crowd went wild.
Spectators at the game saw Old Rochester’s unified basketball team face off against Tri-town police officers in what the unified team’s coach Becky Okolita called “the matchup of two heroes.”
“It’s the face of inclusion with the unified basketball team and the face of justice with the police force,” she said.
The game served as a fundraiser for the team’s travel and equipment costs, with tickets being a suggested donation of $10 for adults and $5 for students.
Unified sports teams join teammates with and without disabilities on the same team, inspired by the principle that playing together promotes a culture of acceptance and equality, explained Okolita.
The team was founded 4 years ago and is a competitive team recognized by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. Currently, the team has 17 total players: 9 players with disabilities, called “athletes,” and 8 “partners,” which is what they call the players without disabilities.
“We have some players with more skills than others, but we give all students a space and time to score,” Okolita said, adding that when they go to games with other unified teams, you often see her cheering for both sides on the sidelines.
“I just want to see all the kids succeed,” she said.
Okolita said that the fundraiser for the team evolved far beyond what she expected. The idea to have the police play the unified team started with Marion harbormaster and police officer Adam Murphy, whose son is on the team.
“I wanted to find a way to introduce the kids to the police in a positive, fun way,” Murphy said. From his conversations with Okolita, they came up with the plan to host the game as a fundraiser.
The team is still borrowing balls and needed to raise money for travel, and it seemed like a great way to get the funds “to be like any other team,” Okolita said.
The stands at Old Rochester were packed with the team’s supporters, including students, parents, town employees and community members. The energy was high, and people on the sidelines were laughing and cheering with every basket scored.
In the end, the game went to the home team as Old Rochester’s Unified basketball players won with a score of 72 to 51.
“They just played like we were any other opposing team,” said Murphy.
“I think my players are the cream of the crop. They embody diversity and compassion and empathy and teamwork, and they’re still competitive, even as much as we have fun they have that competitive edge,” Okolita said.
Okolita added that she hopes to make the fundraiser an annual event by continuing the tradition next year.
Murphy said the police department had only positive things to say. “We were happy about the turnout and we want to continue it,” he said.