From the Superintendent: Friends First, Opposing Players Distant Second

by | Apr 5, 2024

Above: A Warwick Vets athlete hangs out in the bleachers with his old preschool friend from East Greenwich. Submitted photo

Unified sports bring out the best in us

Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D.

The text came in early that morning. Typically, it’s not good news when a principal texts me early in the morning. However, this was a welcomed message from Melissa Centracchio, principal of Cole Middle School: “Unified basketball is playing West Warwick at 9:30. Stop by if you can.” 

There was no question I was making time for this. I quickly rearranged my office hours at another school for later that morning to ensure I could get to Cole to witness this. Unified sports bring out the best in us. It’s the best way to play sports, because everyone is a winner before the games actually begin. It’s the best way to play sports because the final score means nothing. It’s the best way to play sports because it’s not about the outcome; it’s about the relationships. 

In case you’re unfamiliar with Unified sports, it’s a way for students with disabilities to participate in athletics along with typically developing peers. There are uniforms, officials, scorekeepers, and fans. But, honestly, the only thing that matters is having fun. 

During the game at Cole last week, there were no traveling calls, even though almost every kiddo ran with the basketball without dribbling. There were rebounds, but the rebounder often gave the ball back to the kiddo, who took the shot and missed. And the only time the referee blew a whistle was to call for substitutes to ensure that everyone got out onto the floor. 

The gym was packed. The entire student body was in attendance. The bleachers were full, faculty and staff lined the walls, because it was standing room only. And when a Cole player scored the first points of the morning, you would have thought the team won the Middle School State Championship. (Which, by the way, the Cole Boys did win on Feb. 17 of this year.) 

Players ran up and down the floor, holding hands. They helped each other up, even those on the opposing team. During the game, players smiled at each other. 

After the game, I received this message from Mrs. Centracchio, who had emailed the parents of one of our Cole students: 

I am writing to let you know that I am extra proud of Nina today. 

She may have told you that we hosted Warwick Vets today for a unified basketball game. Nina recognized a boy on the Vets team that she went to preschool with, and she approached him to say hi. He was so excited that when he wasn’t on the court playing, he’d go right to Nina and sit with her and her friends throughout the game. 

Vets is where I was in leadership before I came to Cole, so I know the coaches well. One, who is a dear friend of mine, approached me after the game to tell me about what Nina had done and how special it was for this young man. She also shared the attached picture with me – so I thought I’d share them with you as well. 

I am always proud of our students at Cole (especially at events like this) and today I was extra proud of your daughter. Well done, Mom and Dad!

Yes, I know this is different from how sports are usually played. Healthy competition is expected, even at the middle school level. We can only sometimes hold hands and give away rebounds. 

But away from the court, this is precisely what we want from our students, the little and the big humans of East Greenwich Public Schools. We want them to nurture and maintain relationships with friends they’ve had since preschool, regardless of their abilities. We want our students, all of our students, to feel safe, welcomed, and included when they come to school. That way, and only that way, I maintain, can they learn to the best of their ability. That way, and only that way, I maintain, they will have the courage to make mistakes. That way, and only that way, I maintain, is the true meaning of All Means All. 

We’re flawed humans. That part is not in question. However, Unified sports are a window into the depth and beauty of who we really are as those flawed humans. 

Lessons we, more often than not, need to be reminded of by our students. 

Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D., is the superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools.

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Bruce Mastracchio
Bruce Mastracchio
April 6, 2024 6:14 am

Nice article. Nice kids. Nice gestures. Heartwarming story to start my day.

Chuck Nadeau
Chuck Nadeau
April 6, 2024 4:59 pm

I remember the first Unified game I photographed. I was hooked. I still try to shoot as many games as possible and post them on my site for the parents and friends to download free of charge. It’s the least I can do for kids that make me smile.


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