Before the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils take the court in the Dean Dome Saturday, Special Olympics athletes from Orange and Durham counties will face off in their own adaptation of the Carolina-Duke basketball game.
The Carolina-Duke Unified Basketball Game, which brings Special Olympics athletes together with intramural players at the two universities, will tip off at 10 a.m. Saturday in Carmichael Arena, complete with cheerleaders, the Tar Heel pep band and a light show.
“The spirit of competition is strong,” said Hunter Moore, a Carolina sophomore and major events chair for Special Olympics UNC. “They really get into the rivalry, and there will be avid fans on both sides. But it’s really about inclusion and sportsmanship.”
The annual rivalry game is part of a larger effort at Carolina to advance Unified Sports, which encourages individuals with disabilities and Carolina students to practice alongside one another in an inclusive and accessible environment.
Carolina’s unified basketball team consists of five UNC-Chapel Hill students and five Special Olympics athletes from the community. While each player has different abilities, they all share a love of sports — and a desire to take the Blue Devils down.
“We’re not gonna go out there and take it easy,” said Joseph Glenn, a graduate student studying elementary and special education who has played on the unified team for three years. “We want that win. One of our [Special Olympics] athletes is very hard to stop, so I’m expecting a big game from him.”
As the athletes have been preparing for game day, student volunteers with Special Olympics UNC have been rallying the student body, inviting other student organizations to cheer on the players.
“We go around to other student organizations, and they sponsor one of the athletes, so they’ll make signs and cheer for one of the athletes,” Moore said. “It’s really fun. We want to make sure all the athletes feel really supported.”
And the players support one another, as well, often building long-term friendships.
“It’s such a good team experience for both people with disabilities and without,” Glenn said. “You really build strong friendships. Coach works us — he pushes us — and I just think it’s great that we can all bond that way.”
Both Moore and Glenn hope the fans at Carmichael will see the sincerity of those friendships both on and off the court — and consider joining a unified team themselves. In addition to basketball, UNC Campus Recreation offers unified flag football and kickball leagues.
“We want this experience for the athletes to show that we truly believe that this is worth celebrating,” Moore said, “and that their passion for sports is something that is worth pouring into.”