Eight years ago, Unified Basketball inspired me; today, its mission to unite and empower is as strong as ever

REVIEW PHOTO: SAM STITES - Connor Tiffany (right) prepares to shoot the ball after receiving a pass from his brother Dylan at the Special Olympics Oregon Northern Division Unified Basketball tournament on Saturday in Wilsonville. EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in an occasional series of first-person stories by reporter Sam Stites, who spends most of his time seeking out the people and places that make Lake Oswego and the surrounding communities special. Today, join him as he gives back to an organization that taught him a lot about inclusion and acceptance.

REVIEW PHOTO: SAM STITES - West Linn High School learning specialist Julie Holson celebrates a basket Saturday with West Linn fans Nicole and Rob Mitchell.As Dylan Tiffany brings the ball up the basketball court, his teammates begin to execute a play to get the ball into the hands of Dylan's younger brother, Connor.

Connor drives the lane, receives the ball and shoots.

The ball sails through the net, making that satisfying "swish" sound associated with a perfect shot.

Connor raises his arms in triumph as he transitions back on defense and lets out a whooping sound. From the sideline, teachers, friends and parents — including Connor and Dylan's mother Brittany — look on with smiles glued to their faces.

It's a scene that's not uncommon in organized sports, but what makes this particular game so special is that this team is Unified, part of Special Olympics programming that brings students with and without disabilities together to play on the same team. On Saturday, 28 Unified basketball teams from across the Portland metro area and Bend attended the Northern Division tournament held at Wilsonville High School and Inza R. Wood and Meridian Creek middle schools.

Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to start a Unified Sports basketball team at Parkrose High School for my senior project. Unified Sports, or "Project Unify" as it was previously known, began nearly a decade ago as a pilot project of Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR) and several other local chapters across the United States.

REVIEW PHOTO: SAM STITES - Eli Well (left) claps for his teammates Saturday after a basket resulted from a broken play. For myself and my team, it was an incredible hands-on experience learning about inclusion, teamwork and compassion. I recruited my friends to join the team, and we worked side-by-side with students living with cognitive, physical and developmental disabilities that made communication, comprehension and learning a daily challenge both in the classroom and on the basketball court.

But with the help of SOOR staff, patience and a whole lot of empathy, we were able to take our team to the state championship tournament at Springfield High School, where we won first place. Winning the tournament wasn't the most rewarding part of the experience, though. Rather, it was watching my team come together as one unit despite the fact they might not have ever interacted if it were not for Unified Sports.

The tournament in Wilsonville on Saturday marked eight years since I'd had the opportunity to work with SOOR and Unified Sports, so in order to reconnect with the organization that gave me one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, I decided to volunteer with my former mentor, SOOR Director of School Engagement Alix Wasteney.

The first thing I noticed was how much has changed in eight years.

In 2010, the state tournament was attended by about 20 schools from across Oregon. Today, 57 high schools field Unified basketball teams, and this year's tournament was divided into northern and southern divisions that will each send two teams to play for the state title next week at the Oregon School Activities Association's 4A Basketball State Championship.

SOOR's Unified offerings also now include track and field, bocce, golf and softball in the summer; swimming, soccer and volleyball in the fall; and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

REVIEW PHOTO: SAM STITES - Dylan Tiffany clasps hands with Cleveland High School's head coach after their game Saturday. (The Lake Oswego School District doesn't field Unified Sports teams. Instead, the district incorporates athletes with special needs into existing teams, such as cross country and swimming, and funds additional coaching positions.)

It's especially incredible to me that the basketabll program has grown from a relatively unknown activity with just a handful of schools participating to an official part of an OSAA tournament. It's a testament to the hard work being done at SOOR by Wasteney; Jean Hansen, the vice president for school partnerships and youth outreach; and Aaron Johnson, director of Unified Sports.

But without partnerships between SOOR and high school athletic departments from across the state, Unified Sports wouldn't be where it is today.

At Wilsonville High School, for example, Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Dennis Burke has for the past several years been a member of a committee comprised of SOOR staff and athletic directors from around Oregon who advocate for Unified Sports to become an OSAA-sanctioned event.

"We are creating and strengthening partnerships with OSAA, the Oregon Athletic Coaches Association and the Oregon Athletic Directors Association, so as a catalyst we've been able to create these Unified Championships schools," Burke says. "We have students in our schools that can benefit from being involved and connected in so many ways. We owe it to every student to provide them that."

Burke was instrumental in hosting the tournament Saturday in Wilsonville, and his continued involvement with the committee has been key to bolstering the program's reach and allowing more kids like Dylan and Connor Tiffany to have opportunities to play on a team together.

REVIEW PHOTO: SAM STITES - Wilsonville High School's Unified Basketball team poses for a photo before one of its games Saturday. "I think it's great for those who can't participate in regular athletics, because we want to provide the best educational experience for them and not have them feel they're left out of anything," Dylan said on Saturday after his team won a hard-fought battle against Cleveland High School. "A lot of people say that sports are their favorite part of high school, so we should provide that to anyone who wants it."

Dylan, a senior, says he cherishes the opportunity to play with his younger brother, who is a freshman this year. For Connor, it's a chance to be part of a team where he gets to help others and, in turn, receive assists from everyone else.

Established four years ago by Coach Nick Pepper and fellow West Linn High School learning specialists Julie Holson and Dawn Ahlgren, the Lions Unified Basketball team has swelled to more than 20 members, including partners like Dylan (non-disability members) and athletes like Connor (players with disabilities).

"I think it's so important to give everyone the opportunity to work as a team, problem-solve and grow as an individual. I think our district represents that mindset, and if people of all abilities and types can work together as a team, I think they're learning life skills and big-picture lessons that are going to carry with them far beyond just high school," Pepper says. "Everyone has different strengths and areas for growth, and that's why I love Unified Sports so much. It allows people to complement each other and become the best version of themselves."

Contact Lake Oswego Review reporter Sam Stites at 503-636-1281 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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