Lundholm Gymnasium played host to what is likely to be the first basketball game since the arrival of spring on Wednesday night. On this occasion, however, nobody in the crowd seemed to focus on the final score, but rather the electric atmosphere the evening provided.
For the third straight year, the university’s Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) held “Special Spirit” night, a basketball game between two local teams for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The organization’s goal is “to provide [the athletes] with the full experience: mascots, dancers, and a gym packed full of screaming fans.” Wednesday night’s event perfectly displayed those aspirations to all in attendance.
This year’s participants were teams from Portsmouth High School and Pinkerton High School, with both sides’ respective fan sections enthusiastically filling up the bleachers with Pinkerton red and Portsmouth maroon. In total, there were 35 participants, each of them fully participating in the game and interacting with one another to the fullest. The players chased down loose balls, made half court passes to each other and displayed a wonderful sense of friendship and sportsmanship with every shot that fell through the basket. Most importantly, they consistently ran up the court with smiles so big that everyone in Lundholm couldn’t help but feel they were contagious.
“It’s really an unbelievable feeling to come out here and give this to everyone involved,” Portsmouth coach Bryan Rogers said. “We participate in Special Olympic events as well, but ‘Special Spirit’ night is definitely everyone’s favorite to play in.”
Both team coaches, Rogers and Pinkerton’s Todd Borchers, played every single athlete multiple times and served as positive role models throughout the contest, giving out high fives and hugs whenever a player came out of the game. The crowd was full of members of the UNH student body, including the full pep band, members of the “Cat Pack Captains” organization and multiple student athletes who served as referees for the game and also as cheerful spectators. Students, as well as family, friends, and other onlookers remained engaged throughout the entirety of the game as the crowd of several hundred made sure to help give the participants a night they wouldn’t forget.
Keeping the night energetically rolling along was a representative of Special Spirit, offering a play-by-play analysis of the action and engaging with the crowd through dance-offs, free throw shooting competitions and chucking free UNH t-shirts around the gym. At halftime, dance organization “Sisters in Step” gave a riveting performance as spectators congregated in the atrium for food, clothes, and raffle tickets. One of the night’s sweetest moments came at the onset of the fourth quarter, when the raffle ticket winner came down to half court and immediately donated his $118 in winnings to SOTA and the Special Spirit event. In total, the venues and events throughout the evening raised $880, a number to be proud of and one that will be challenged in the coming years as the event continues.
Above all, the evening was marked by the charisma of its athletes and the joy this opportunity brought to them. Pinkerton’s Kyle Tamasi, one of the game’s most active and enthusiastic athletes, was given the ball by his teammate Dave Weaver in the last few seconds of the game. His shot went through as the final buzzer sounded, and Weaver proceeded to pick him up in a lovable bear hug.
SOTA’s vice president and junior occupational therapy major Stephanie Gentile, stated that Special Spirit “means a big chance to shine in a big environment for the participants”, and the scene between the two perfectly embellished that idea.
“It makes us all feel normal,” Pinkerton’s Hailey Maracin said. “We get to be included. To play in these sports games makes us feel really special.”
Wednesday night was all that and more, as every athlete walked out of Lundholm Gymnasium a winner.