Basketball games at Rowan University have taken on a different tone lately. It’s not just the Profs shooting for glory, but a new league of players who are winning over fans.
Rowan is the first organization in the state to team up with Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) to create the Unified Sports club. Over several Saturday since February, 60 Rowan students have taken the court alongside 28 SONJ players for league play.
Unified Sports is a five-on-five, eight-team basketball league—the first of its kind at any university nationwide.
Rowan’s assistant director for sport clubs and youth programs, Gary Baker, spearheaded the club after enthusiastic meetings with dozens of university students about the idea.
“I had a Special Olympics parent stop me on the first day and say how she was surprised to see so many Rowan students required to be there,” Assistant Vice President for Student Life Tina Pinocci said. “I told her that none of our students are required to be here. They don’t receive any college credit for this. They’re here because they want to be here.”
The SONJ athletes, who have intellectual disabilities, come from all over South Jersey to participate in the league. SONJ covers all costs for their athletes, including training, accommodations, food and uniforms.
The only requirement is a willingness to join in the fun. Rowan’s participants range from basketball newcomers to varsity forward Tom Paterno. Each team has at least three SONJ athletes, and Rowan students play, coach and act as scorekeepers and referees.
SONJ athlete Brooke Creighton, of Pitman, scored 14 points alone in the first day’s scrimmage game, while Rowan’s Leigha Bannon has never played competitive basketball before.
“I’ve only played soccer,” said Bannon, a sophomore marketing major from Galloway. “This is a very different sport. But I’m having a lot of fun and I love the energy of the league.”
While skills are important, the players’ dedication is what makes them shine on the court.
“Mike has nonstop hustle,” coach Artie Kaylor said about his SONJ teammate Mike Nichols, of Glassboro. “He loves defense. He knows he needs help shooting, but he plays every minute with all of his heart.”
Rowan students and SONJ athletes aren’t the only ones who look forward to Saturday matchups. Each week, the athletes’ parents, family members and friends line the perimeter of the court cheering on the teams.
Sue Bruner recognizes the benefits of Rowan’s Unified Sports league. Her son Cody is a four-sport SONJ athlete who competed for Team NJ in the 2010 USA National Games in Lincoln, NE.
“I think it’s great,” Bruner, a Barrington resident, said. “Cody’s already meeting new friends and playing at a higher competition level. He talks about the league all week. He feels like he belongs here at Rowan.”
Cody, Sue and her husband, Barry, all attended the first training session that SONJ conducted with Rowan students to explain the history of the organization, goal of the league and rules of the game.
“It’s amazing how many kids from Rowan came to support these kids,” Bruner said. “I told the students at the training meeting, ‘I don’t know you and I’m already proud of you.’”
The Unified Sports clubs’ last games of this session on are March 31 at Rowan University.
Rowan University submitted this release to West Deptford Patch. For the full release, visit the university’s news page.