It was the battle of the Five Towns. But the contest between the Hewlett-Woodmere and Lawrence school districts on May 25 was more about uniting than competing, as students at all levels gathered for a Unified Basketball game at Hewlett High School.
Formed by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics New York, Unified Basketball’s goal is to promote social inclusion in sports.
Hewlett High special education teacher and boys’ varsity basketball coach Bill Dubin, leads the school’s unified team.
“It’s a combination of students with disabilities and students without disabilities,” Dubin explained. “There have to be at least three students on the floor that have an IEP,” he added, referring to an Individualized Education Program, “and the other two could be general education students.”
According to SpecialOlympics.org, 1.2 million people participate in unified sports leagues globally, which help break down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities.
The teams are also gender-neutral, with boys and girls competing together.
There are five other unified teams in the county: East Rockaway, Freeport, Garden City, New Hyde Park and Plainedge — and they play a seven-game season each spring.
Last week’s game was the second between Hewlett-Woodmere and Lawrence this season — Hewlett won the first contest, 50-47, on May 9 — and the energy was high among the players on both teams, as they played for Five Towns bragging rights. The Lawrence squad came out on top, 65-49.
When the final buzzer sounded, it also marked the end of Hewlett senior Eden Shi’s Unified Basketball career. He has been a member of the school’s team for three years, and said that the experience gave him the chance to spend time with his classmates with intellectual disabilities.
“I think it’s a great thing to help the students with disabilities and give them a chance to play basketball,” Shi said. “Without this program, they wouldn’t be able to compete and play basketball as much as they do now, so I think this was a great cause to join.”
The team practiced last summer, Shi said, and students learned how to shoot and pass the ball, along with other skills. Basketball involves close physical contact, and many parents of children with disabilities initially fear for their safety.
“I had to speak to a set of parents last year for almost two hours to convince them to allow their son to play,” Dubin recalled. “They were concerned for his safety because he also had physical issues as well. I had to convince them that everything would be fine, and that he would be safe and cared for.”
Those parents, Dubin said, eventually allowing their son to play, and at the end of the season, he received a letter from them, thanking him for encouraging them to allow him to play.
“I love these kids,” he said. I’ll do anything to protect them.”
Hewlett junior Moshe Cohen, who played his third season, said he felt safe with Dubin and enjoyed playing for him. “He has a great sense of humor, and he makes it all positive,” Cohen said.
“It’s all smiles and a great atmosphere.”
As Shi prepares to graduate and say goodbye to the team, he said he hoped his teammates, whom he considers as friends, would continue to play and have fun. “I just hope they continue to play basketball like they do and compete,” he said.