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Double-double: All can play, and win, on basketball court

Special needs student Matt Kramer of Half Hallow

Special needs student Matt Kramer of Half Hallow Hills West at a Unified Sports Basketball game on Tuesday. Credit: Raychel Brightman

High school basketball season may be over but an innovative hoops season is getting under way at schools across Long Island.

Known as unified leagues, they bring the excitement of playing in front of noisy fans to intellectually challenged students who otherwise might never have gotten the opportunity.

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Half Hollow Hills East and Hills West played one such contest at the West campus under the auspices of Section XI, the governing body of Suffolk County high school athletics.

At first glance, it was just another basketball game. With more than 100 people in the stands, there were shootarounds, pregame introductions and a salute to America. The play-by-play announcer was at the scorer’s table and the referees held the ball ready to toss up the opening tip with either team waiting for their opportunity to shoot at the 10-foot basket.

“It makes me feel like a star,” Hills West sophomore Sean Neary said. “It’s 100 percent fun. I would say 10,000 percent fun.”

The rules are simple. Played in conjunction with the state’s governing body parted with Special Olympics, the inclusive league brings together both intellectually challenged and general education student-athletes to play a six-game basketball schedule in May after at least six practices in April. The only students unable to participate are varsity and junior varsity basketball players from the previous winter. At least two intellectually challenged players must be on the court for each team at all times.

There are 140 schools in the state competing in unified basketball, according to New York State sports association assistant director Todd Nelson.

“I think this program has shown that it can be a great conduit for all kids to work together,” said Hills East coach Don Herr, a physical education and health teacher, after Tuesday’s 74-72 overtime victory over Hills West. “And all kids can be successful.”

The two Half Hollow Hills teams joined established programs from Amityville, Floyd, Northport, Southampton and Whitman this year in Suffolk. Nassau County has nine teams:

Carle Place, East Rockaway, Freeport, Floral Park, Garden City, Lawrence, Long Beach, New Hyde Park and Roosevelt.

The players will be the first to say it’s about the experience of the whole, rather than individual success.

“We all try to help each other out so if that means spreading the shots and getting fewer shots for yourself, that’s a sacrifice you have to make,” said Darian Tarnaras, a Hills West freshman who said he joined the team because one of his friends plays.

“As long as everybody’s getting time to play, everybody’s taking the shots they like and everybody’s having a good time,” said Tanaras who hopes to eventually play winter varsity basketball. “That’s all that matters.”

School administrators are happy with the program.

“Unified basketball creates an environment for all athletes to be successful,” said Debra Ferry, athletic director for the Half Hollow Hills Central school district. “It creates an activity for kids who may not otherwise be able to participate on a high school sports team.”

Ilyssa Rosken, a senior at Hills East, plans to study special education at Florida Atlantic University. She serves her team as both a player and a helper, standing with some of the more challenged student-athletes and helping them catch the ball so they can shoot and score.

“I love it,” Rosken said. “I just love having them being happy and love working with those kids.”

The league has given opportunities to those like Hills East freshman Andrew Gluck, who said his favorite players are LeBron James and Steph Curry for their shooting ability.

Gluck made a three-pointer Tuesday. “It’s awesome,” Gluck said. “One million percent awesome. I was so impressed with myself.”

Neary, who also said his favorite player is LeBron, said when he’s on the court he can feel like the players he idolizes. He’s also aware of the impact he can have on others watching him play.

“When I have the ball, I feel like I can make it,” Neary said. “It’s inspiring in people’s hearts.”

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