UNIFIED SPORTS SCORES
The Oregon City High gym is rocking on a Tuesday night, with the school pep band playing and the cheerleaders cavorting and a decent crowd on hand.
But it's not the Pioneer boys or girls teams that are playing basketball on this winter evening.
Four teams — two representing Oregon City High — are participating in a Unified Sports program doubleheader.
Oregon has 57 high schools that field Unified basketball teams. Those teams, under the umbrella of Special Olympics, offer special-education students and others without a school team on which to play an opportunity to take part in some organized hooping.
"It has been really good for me," says Oregon City junior Sam Lary, who is in his second year in the program. "I wouldn't have a place to play otherwise."
Lary is one of the volunteers, or "partners," who participate in the program. During a game, a team must have three students with intellectual disabilities along with two "gen-ed" (general education) students on the court. Lary, 17, qualifies as the latter, with an asterisk.
He has cerebral palsy stemming from complications at birth. The right side of his body is affected. His right hand doesn't function, and he wears a brace on his right leg.
But Lary loves sports, especially basketball. That's been true from the time he was a young child, making physical therapy and occupational visits to the Doernbecher and Shriners hospitals.
"Sam was shooting 3-point shots on their little courts," says his mother, Josie Rankin Lary. "It was what the therapists used to get him up on his feet as he learned to walk. They would position him, and he'd focus on shooting the ball and not worry so much about stabilizing himself.
"When most people were telling us he may not walk or talk, he got up and walked at 34 months, and started talking after that."
Since then, Sam has had vocal and physical challenges, and continues to deal with seizures that grip his body and affect every area of his life. His interest and participation in sports, though, has been a constant positive.
After getting cut during tryouts for the Oregon City freshman team, he and his mother sought out other avenues for participation. A friend told Josie about Unified Sports.
"My mom went to a couple of games and came back saying, 'Oh, my gosh, this is the greatest thing in the world,'" Sam says. "So I'm like, 'We should do this at our school.'"
Sam and Josie were driving forces in establishing a Unified program at Oregon City. She is now parent coordinator for the two Oregon City teams, which began play last year with five games. The teams are playing six games this season, plus a tournament in March.
The games are somewhat competitive, with the gen-ed players focusing on getting their special-ed teammates plenty of shots and time with the ball. Is the goal to win?
"Our coaches don't think so," Sam says with a smile, "but I do."
Lary's coach is Steve Allen, a former wrestling coach who works as an adaptive physical education specialist for the Oregon City School District.
"I'm in and amongst a lot of these kids," Allen says. "The eligibility for Unified Sports, by Special Olympic criteria, is intellectually challenged and/or autistic. Some kids are both."
When Josie reached out to him to coach a team, "I said, 'Yes, I'll do everything I can to make this happen,'" Allen says. "It's so nice to see the development of kids.
"Our first year, Special Olympics was the bedrock of support for us, financially and in helping us to organize. This year, the goal has been to get this program more student-driven, to get the whole school included in recognizing differences and students with special needs. We've seen a spirit of unity within our entire student body. It's a wonderful coming together of life's challenges."
Allen says he loves the games because of, well, the unifying theme.
"One of the biggest pieces is the parents," he says. "It's rewarding for me to see the parents of our special-needs kids, as well as gen-eds, come together, and the pride on their faces. They've thanked me over and over again."
Lary has taken on the Unified Sports program as his senior project. Normally, that's done during a student's senior year, but the enormity of the project called for him to start early.
"He was given permission by the principal to work on his project now to create a blueprint for students after he graduates," Josie says.
Sam hopes to add Unified teams in soccer, and perhaps volleyball, at Oregon City. For now, it's about basketball — not just playing, but also mentoring the special-ed students. He has served as an assistant coach on one of the basketball teams, has landed a teacher's aide position in the special-ed classroom and plans to apply for a job working with kids with disabilities at Camp Kiwanis this summer.
Besides that, Lary is a 3-point student who plays percussion in the school band, loves art and may have a career working with special-ed students ahead of him.
"He has a really good way with them," his mother says. "They love him. They admire him. These kids follow him around at school. He has made a difference in their lives."
And Unified Sports has made a difference in his.
"His whole demeanor is completely different when he's playing sports," Josie says. "His life is very full when he has sports under his belt.
"I also love what I'm seeing from the other kids. He has several friends from band on the team. We've seen the change in the confidence in the kids. They're good athletes. They just needed the opportunity to play."
Oregon City splits a pair of games on this night, beating Sherwood in the opener 42-39 when Dakota Freeman banks in a halfcourt shot as time expires, touching off a wild celebration. Freeman's brother, Landon, is a third-grader with special needs. It's why he is involved in the program.
"I see how much he wants to play basketball," Dakota Freeman says. "When I heard about this through Sam, it was one of those things I had to be a part of. Watching the kids play, it's like, 'Wow.' You're making so much of a difference in their lives."
Forest Grove has too much for Oregon City in the nightcap, winning 51-34. Lary, 5-7, plays with a certain joie de vivre, though, scoring five points, left-handing in a 3-pointer, notching a couple of steals and doing his part without stealing the show.
The special-ed kids all get their chances to score, and most of them do, often racing back upcourt with pride and glee.
The fans cheer, the cheerleaders dance and the band plays on — sports in its purest form.
In a world loaded with turmoil and tragedy, what a joy it is to see.