Brandon Schmit loves basketball. He has cerebral palsy, which makes dribbling with his right hand impossible, but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the sport he loves. He grew up playing on a Special Olympics team in Eastern Oregon and now at 27 years old, Schmit plays with other Special Olympics athletes and University of Oregon students on the UO Unified basketball team.
Unified Sports is a national program that brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities to promote inclusivity and sportsmanship.
The teams are made up of UO students and Special Olympics athletes from the Eugene-Springfield community as part of the UO intramural program. Just like other intramural sports, Unified teams compete against each other for a chance to win bragging rights and an Intramural Championship T-shirt.
Last month, Schmit and his teammates competed in the first-ever Unified NIRSA Region VI Basketball Championship, hosted in Cheney, Washington, at Eastern Washington University. NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation is the organization that helps organize intramural sports at college campuses nationwide and Region VI is generally the West Coast.
The team played against five other city and university Unified teams in five games over that weekend.
The UO team, which was assembled out of students and athletes who were available to travel, didn’t have a full practice together before its first face-off. They were the underdogs of the tournament because the players were a bit unfamiliar with each other — but they were confident, said Nathan Olsen, a UO senior who plays on the team.
After losing the first game in pool play, the UO Unified team went on to win their next four games in a row against some of the top Pacific Northwest Unified teams to become the regional champions.
“That was like getting an A+ on a test that you knew was going to be hard. That was awesome,” Schmit said. “It was very exciting and very gratifying.”
With the win, the team received a bid to play in the upcoming NIRSA National Basketball Championship. The team will travel to Wichita, Kansas, to compete against 12 other Unified university teams April 12 through 14.
Olsen said he’s looking forward to having another opportunity to play with this team after their success in the regional tournament.
“We’re really good, we’re friends and our chemistry is fine, but there was definitely an aspect of at Washington, we were a rag-tag group of people that play basketball together. For nationals, I kind of want to be a unified basketball team,” said Olsen.
The UO Unified program started last year when Amanda Deml, the assistant director of intramural sports at the Rec Center, reached out to the Eugene-Springfield Special Olympics coordinators to gauge their interest in partnering to create a Unified Sports program at UO.
“A lot of [students] are already participating in intramurals, but it’s an opportunity for us to reach out to folks who maybe normally wouldn’t be participating but they have an interest in working with the Special Olympics athletes,” said Deml. “It's a great avenue for more folks to get involved with the Rec Center, and it’s just been super rewarding getting to work and partner with Special Olympics.”
UO Unified basketball began with four teams and about 40 participants, including a mix of Special Olympics athletes and UO students and grew in one year to have six teams with about 60 participants. The Rec Center also offers Unified indoor and outdoor soccer and plans to include more Unified Sports in the future.
The Special Olympics of Oregon, a nonprofit that organizes athletic events and oversees local programs, has been facing financial instability over the past few years, The Oregonian reported. The organization decided to cancel all events and trainings last September, according to a letter from SOOR Board Chair Ed Ray.
Though the statewide organization had to pull back on programming, volunteers keep local chapters of Special Olympics active in their communities. With limited funding, the partnership with UO is the only way Special Olympics athletes in Eugene and Springfield are able to play basketball on a team.
“At this time, we just feel thankful that we’re able to provide that resource and support [the Special Olympics] and their athletes,” Deml said.
“More than a game”
For Schmit, the UO Unified basketball team is more than just an opportunity to play a sport he loves.
“Playing with the university students, it’s nice because it gives me more of a circle of friends and gets me out and about and meeting new people,” Schmit said. “During the Eastern Washington tournament, I grew pretty close with the people that were up there.”
The newly assembled team spent eight hours in the car together on the way to the regional tournament and 72 hours together over the course of the weekend. Though some of the team members knew each other prior to the tournament, the weekend gave them the opportunity to get closer and build lasting relationships.
“Outside of Special Olympics people, I don’t have very many friends,” said Schmit, adding that Unified Sports “changed everything” for him. “I’m very excited to see those friendships continue to grow.”
Olsen, the UO senior who plays on the team, said that while the competition of the sport is exciting, the relationships and lessons learned are much more important.
He said one of his favorite memories was losing the first game of the tournament. “I specifically remember it because I’ve never lost a game smiling before until now. It was like, ‘Wow, this is more than a game. This is about emotions, about pure joy that we’re bringing to ourselves and people that don’t get to always have the same feelings,’” said Olsen.
Sean Graninger, coordinator of intramural sports and youth camps with the Rec Center, helped coach the team and traveled with them to Washington. “One of the best parts,” he said, “was just getting to know the other teams because of how Unified is structured. The point of the league is that there is a natural camaraderie between the other teams and other schools that you might not get in maybe the women’s competitive or the men’s competitive leagues.”
Now, with the national tournament just around the corner, the UO Unified basketball team is working to raise funds to travel to Wichita, Kansas. For the regional tournament, the team was awarded a grant provided by the Diversity Action Plan through the Division of Equity and Inclusivity to fund their travel expenses.
For the national tournament, the team is raising funds through DuckFunder, UO’s crowdsourcing platform. Donations would cover the cost of flights, hotel stays and meals for the weekend.
The team has already raised over $7,700 dollars of their $11,000 goal.
“We’ve just been blown away by the support in our community,” said Deml. “It’s been really fantastic to see not only the financial donations, which are significant, but also the words of encouragement and people rallying around a good cause.”
As for the players, Schmit said he is excited to have another opportunity to compete alongside their teammates and newfound friends.
“A couple things that I’m looking forward to is trying to get better with my team and do what we did in Washington and face those challenges together and grow closer with my teammates,” Schmit said. “I’ve never been to the Midwest, so it’s going to be a whole new experience, and I’m excited for that.”
Though the season is almost over for Olsen, he said he hopes to continue playing Unified basketball after he graduates and eventually would like to coach a team. He said he will also play Unified soccer during spring term.
“It transitioned into something that was special enough to me that I want it to be more impactful for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’m very excited to look into the Milwaukie area, where I’m headed back to, to try to get involved for the long term.”
To donate to the UO Unified basketball team, visit https://duckfunder.uoregon.edu/project/15253.