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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Gym jam-packed for Brighton’s unified basketball showcase, tournament play

Mar 30, 2023 10:47AM ● By Julie Slama

Brighton High leads the parade of athletes at the state unified basketball tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

As Brighton High warmed up for a regional unified basketball tournament, they may have had an edge on their competition.

A couple days beforehand, the Bengals scrimmaged the school’s boys’ basketball team, taking them down 31-6. The stands were full of fans—students and teachers, First Lady Abby Cox, Canyons Superintendent Rick Robins and Canyons Board of Education and Canyons Education Foundation members.

“It was fun and I’m glad we won,” said freshman Sam Jensen with the unified team. “We were playing where our ‘professional’ (high school) team plays, and we were making so many baskets. I made six.”

Sophomore Mitchell Burt chipped in eight points and got a high-five from his peer tutor and teammate, sophomore Jack Peterson.

In unified basketball, each team has five players on the court—three athletes and two unified partners. Teams play against other squads of the same ability in two eight-minute halves. Supported by Special Olympics and the Utah High School Activities Association, unified sports has both a competitive and a player development level, the latter which provides more of a cooperative environment with partners being teammates and mentors. 

UHSAA referee Paul Madsen said he appreciates unified basketball.

“There’s great sportsmanship,” he said. “Everyone is helping each other. It’s wonderful to see.” 

Burt’s mother, Jennie, said she is grateful for unified sports as it provides her son opportunities he doesn’t get normally.

“There is much more community involvement and inclusion,” she said. “There is real friendship.”

Brighton Principal Tom Sherwood agrees: “It really helps put things into perspective when you see how much joy everyone gets from participating in Unified Sports. It’s contagious. Everyone that watches can’t help but be affected in a positive way.”

At the regional tournament, Brighton student-athletes split up on three teams, based on ability. Each team placed, taking first, third and fourth in their divisions.

Canyons Education Foundation Officer Denise Haycock helped at the regional tournament and appreciated the partnerships between Jordan and Canyons foundations and the support of sponsors, including Scheels in providing equipment for the unified athletes.

In Utah, involvement in unified high school basketball has skyrocketed. This year, there were the most teams in its history competing to play at state—73 teams competed for 32 state seeds, said Courtnie Worthen, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools manager.

At the March 8 state unified basketball tournament, there was plenty of smiles and cheers as Brighton High took sixth place in its division. Administrators from several school districts and educational foundations joined Gov. Spencer Cox and the First Lady to support the competition, which was held at Weber State University.

Abby Cox said she was proud of everyone in the gym.

“Utah as a state—we are part of the inclusion revolution,” she told them.

Unified sports engages students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams, leading to not only sports skills development and competition, but also inclusion and friendship, Worthen said.

“Unified sports provides social inclusion opportunities for all teammates to build friendships on and off the court,” she said. “The teammates challenge each other to improve their skills and fitness and at the same time, increase positive attitudes and establish friendships and provide a model of inclusion for the entire school community.”

Unified sports, Worthen said, is included in the Unified Champion Schools model, where a unified team is supported by the entire school and there is inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.

“With schools that embrace the Unified Champion Schools model, they create communities where all students feel welcome and are included in all school activities and opportunities. Students feel socially and emotionally secure, they’re more engaged in the school and feel supported, and are respected,” she said. “It changes school climates.”