Unified Basketball Program Provides Opportunities

The Unified Basketball Program is a basketball program that allows kids with special needs to have a chance at playing basketball with other students on campus. Boys’ basketball coach and athletic director Jose Gil started the program in 2019 and brought it back this year.  “The Unified Basketball Program is an extension of what used to be the Special Olympics that focuses on just basketball for the kids,” Gil said. 

Gil and a couple other local Salinas Union High School Districts’ Athletic Directors heard about the program being done in locations nearby such as the Los Angeles Area or San Francisco at a meeting and wanted to help start the program at a closer proximity to us. 

The program includes all special needs students, who are accompanied by seven to eight students, both boys and girls. These students are specifically chosen by the athletic directors from the varsity basketball team. However, they aren’t picked by popularity or rank, the students selected for the program are ones who understand the program is for the special kids enjoyment and not their own. “I pick like three to four boys and three or four girls, that understand the concept about how it’s not about them but about the others and they’re not there to shine, they’re there to make the other kids shine, they have to be the good kids, not the best players, but just good kids that just have a good heart and that are selfless,”Gil said.

The league is made up of most PCAL High Schools — Everett Alvarez, North Salinas, Seaside, Rancho San Juan, and Hollister. The games are held around lunchtime and the schools alternate where the games are held. During the game, to give all the special students time to play, a rotation of every two minutes passed by new students would be subbed into the game. These sub-ins, consist of a combination of two regular students and three special needs students on the court at all times, to allow each special needs player a chance to play. “We are there [in the court] to help the students have the confidence to shoot the basketball,” Gil-Silva said.

Recently, to add more participation from special needs kids, Gil has added miniature basketball hoops that are placed on the right side of the court to allow for students with severe conditions to still be able to participate. “We put the smaller baskets there for the kids in wheelchairs, kids that are..um..severely affected physically or mentally so that they could make the baskets into a smaller group,” said Gil. Nonetheless, many of the other special needs students love to use the smaller hoop because of how easy it is to make slam dunk shots. “My favorite part of the game is being able to shoot the ball and hear the cheers, I get excited,” Rosa, a special needs student said.

Unlike most years, however, many of the students this year were more enthusiastic and started to volunteer to help out in Unified Basketball. Gil approached both the boys and girls basketball team introducing the concept of the program and when approached with this idea, Nayeli Gil-Silva (Gil’s daughter), and some of her teammates — Yulissa Alvarez, Janelle Medina, and Mia Rivera. “He (Gil) asked who wanted to (help) like from the girls and the boys and I volunteered, me and a couple of my teammates, Yuli, Janelle, and Mia,” Gil-Silva said. The girls  felt their experiences in the program have helped shape a new perspective and allowed them to grow as a person. “It gave me the opportunity to be able to work with kids with special needs and taught me to always be a supportive teammate and encouraged me to be more helpful in general,” Yulissa Alvarez said. 

Like any other sport, when the game is being played, a scoreboard records the points of the game. However, the results of the basketball game aren’t the most important part, it’s the glory and excitement the special needs kids feel once they get their hands on the ball, dribble it and make their shot. “I like running up and down to chase the ball, it makes me happy,”  Alan Cortez said. The special needs kids have a competitive nature and do all they can to win. “We were very behind in the game against North High, but in a split second we were able to make a comeback and ended up winning the game,” Gil-Silva said.

Throughout the season, all the students expressed their gratitude and enjoyment of the program and recommended joining the program to anyone interested in helping out. “I love being able to be with the kids on the court and opening opportunities,” Alvarez said. “This [program] gives me happy and joy when [I] play,” Alicia Caballero said, “I feel like many things came from this.”