The cheers are as loud as at any youth basketball game and it takes a little while before a casual spectator notices that some of the players need an extra hand on the court now and then.
Every Wednesday afternoon in January, basketball teams from Special Olympics Unified Sports program practice at the HUB Sports Center in Liberty Lake.
Each team has a roughly equal number of players with developmental challenges and players without. The able-bodied players may help the disabled players dribble the ball and pass, but the goal is for those with disabilities to participate in the game as much as possible.
Basketball teams from University, Rogers and Shadle high schools are among those practicing at the the HUB this month.
“What’s cool is that kids who don’t otherwise have a chance to wear a school jersey, can do it here,” said Phil Champlin, executive director of the HUB.
The Unified Sports Program practiced at the HUB last year as well.
Mead High School teacher Charlene Shaver was there with students last year, and she said it’s amazing how big a difference there is this year.
“It gives us goosebumps to see how good they’ve gotten,” Shaver said. “Some of the students who needed a lot of direction last year are doing great this year.”
It’s also an opportunity for able-bodied students, who otherwise don’t participate in sports, to play on a school team.
“They are just amazing,” Shaver said.
Shaver said her students only had two practices, but as she was watching from the sidelines she was very happy with the progress. “They all work together so well.”
Stephen Opland coordinates the Unified Sports Program for Special Olympics in Eastern Washington. Opland said the teams playing at the HUB are competing for spots at the regional tournament to be held at Washington State University in Pullman on Feb. 13. The state finals are in Wenatchee on March 5.
About 100 students from the Spokane-area participate in Unified Sports which also hosts tournaments in soccer and football.
The rules are similar to the professional rules, though students are cut a little slack on double dribbling and traveling.
“Our goal is that they look good, feel good and play good,” Opland said.