Joshua Campbell had a strategy going in to the game.
Less than an hour before he joined his teammates from the Grandview High School Unified Basketball Team to take on the squad from Cherokee Trail on Jan. 13, Campbell was thinking about how he'd contribute to a victory. He was going to shoot a lot, he asserted. He was going work with his teammates and dig deep to find a victory, he insisted. Campbell's confidence was hard to miss.
"I am excited … I've made a lot of friends," Campbell said. "We're going to smoke them!" he declared, throwing his arms up in the air.
Campbell's excitement carried on to the court. As his team pulled ahead, he found a way to contribute. He sped down the court, made a tough basket and celebrated as if he'd just won the World Series. His teammates joined in his enthusiastic display.
It's a brand of celebration that's typical at unified games, tournaments that feature teams made up students with intellectual or physical disabilities and their typically developing peers. Campbell and his teammates savor every chance they have to be on the court; the glory of racking up two points in a basketball game is a cause for pure joy. This is teamwork in its most basic form.
That goes for all of the members of these teams, no matter their level of athleticism or the state of their development.
"This is one of the most amazing things I've ever done," said Joe Richart, a 17-year-old Grandview senior who started working with the school's unified team last year. "It's being able to help kids and make them feel like any other student … I get to go out and make their day better. I appreciate every day that I get to work with them."
The impact of the team on Richart goes a lot deeper than individual games. Richart, an active athlete who plays on Grandview's football and lacrosse teams, has found a larger sense of purpose working with the unified program. As he starts to map out plans for his college career, he knows he wants to pursue teaching and specifically special education as a career.
"It's just because of this one program," Richart said. "It's amazing."
That kind of effect isn't rare. These games are inspiring at every level, from the opening tip-off to the final basket. The assembled crowd cheers for both teams. Teammates go out of their way to make sure that every player gets a chance to shoot. Players' celebrations after scoring are contagious – the wide smiles and hoots of victory spread to coaches and spectators alike.
"This is the purest form of enjoyment. A lot of these kids may never be on a basketball court … Everything they have, they throw in to this. It's 100 percent genuine," said Cory Chandler, a para-educator at Grandview who started the school's unified team six years ago. "The reward is watching their faces, and watching the parents of the athletes crying when their kids get to play."
The team is part of the wider Project UNIFY movement. Like other similar teams across the state and the country, the Grandview and Smoky Hill teams have partnered with the Special Olympics to offer athletic opportunities to students with a wide range of needs and a wide range of skills.
It's a mission that's found support from community members across the district. During the game on Jan. 13, Cherry Creek Schools Foundation Executive Director Jill Henden joined Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull for a formal awards ceremony. Each team received a check for $1,000 from the Foundation, money that will go to purchase uniforms and other equipment.
That kind of support makes a world of difference for the athletes, Chandler said.
"It makes the kids feel like members of a normal basketball team," Chandler said, adding that the program is largely self-funded. "Without that, they might be running around in T-shirts and their own shorts."
It makes a big difference, Chandler added, as does the simple opportunity to take the court in front of family and friends. Earlier in the season, members of Grandview's unified team had the opportunity to play on the court at the Pepsi Center, and the impact was a highlight of his career.
Just as Richart found a sense of lifelong purpose in his work with these athletes, Chandler has picked up important life lessons from such games. As a coach who works with high school students of all ages and backgrounds, Chandler has gleaned universal insights from his work with the unified program.
"There's a desire to win across the board," Chandler said. "But it also teaches you not to sweat the small stuff."