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Athletes rejoice as unified basketball returns following two-year gap | Sports

LOCKPORT — “We have a game today! We have a game today!”

Coach Sal Constantino has experienced the fervor and anticipation of gameday in the hallway at Niagara Falls High School plenty of times, but this was a bit different.

For the first time in two years, unified basketball programs got the chance to put on jerseys and lace up sneakers against an opponent in the first scrimmages of a new season. Grand Island, Lewiston-Porter, Lockport and Niagara Falls battled Tuesday at Lockport High School in a series of preseason tune-ups held across the state.

Like every other sport in the spring of 2020, unified basketball was wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an attempt to have a season last year, but for a variety of reasons — including many athletes with compromised immune systems — it was unable to proceed.

After a successful unified bowling campaign this year, basketball is back and the players couldn’t wait to compete, even if official games are still a week away.

“They were looking forward to this, even before (spring break),” said Constantino, who led the Wolverines boys basketball program to five Section VI championships in nine years as head coach. “… We tell them we’re going to cheer for everyone to make a shot, but to watch them cheer not just for themselves but for other teams is such a good feeling. There’s just a good vibe out here.”

PHOTOS: Unified basketball resumes after two-year hiatus

It was difficult for some programs to gauge what participation numbers would be after a two-year hiatus, but Lockport has 17 competitors this year, which was better than new coach Karl Griffin expected. Lew-Port first-year coach Max Hyland also said his team’s roster had doubled since the 2019 season.

The Lancers have a core group of players — they call themselves the OGs — who are veterans from the first team fielded by the school two years ago. They have made it easy for Hyland to step in as a coach for the first time.

“This is all new to me and we have a lot of new kids,” Hyland said, “so having that small group of players who are our veterans, they lead the way. I let them lead and they’re teaching all of us.”

Every coach in the gymnasium has seen how athletics can positively influence a student outside the arena and unified sports are no different. All of the athletes find the same positive experiences, whether it’s being part of a team or getting to perform in front of a crowd.

Partners — three athletes and two partners are on the court under unified basketball rules — also gain positive traits from participating. They learn unselfishness by frequently deferring to athletes when it comes to shooting or dribbling the ball up the court and how to dispel negative stereotypes in interacting with those with intellectual disabilities.

“The selflessness, being excited when your teammate scores, making the extra pass — it’s great being part of a team,” said Griffin, who has also coached football and lacrosse for the Lions. “It builds a lot of character and teaches you a lot of lifelong lessons. I think they really enjoy it.”

When Constantino says his players “live for this,” it’s not entirely hyperbole, especially when they passed him in the hallway during the day. It was evident how excited the players were to be back, not just from the smiles.

Lew-Port’s Anna Pizzi made the first basket of the day, followed it with a leap of excitement and held her fist in the air all the way down the court before taking her position on defense. Her genuine excitement from her was also reflected in others.

“It makes me happy and good,” Niagara Falls sophomore Ashley Fryling said. “… It gives me more energy to play different sports and it’s really fun.”

Nick Sabato can be reached via email at or on Twitter @NickSabatoGNN.


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