ONTARIO — The Ontario High School gym was packed with raucous fans Tuesday night.
But the fans weren’t just cheering the Tigers, or the Nyssa Bulldogs, or the Vale Vikings. They were all there to cheer on differently-abled students from those three schools in the Support the Court basketball game.
The Vale team used a big late-game flurry for a 39-36 comeback win over the combined Ontario/Nyssa team.
Support the Court is based on the Pack the Gym nights that have taken off in the Seattle-area. It was spear-headed by Nancy Menges, whose son, Michael, was born with Down syndrome and who was a senior on the Ontario basketball team this year.
The Menges family recently moved to Ontario from Seattle (Nancy Menges is originally from Nyssa). While in the Seattle area, there were ample opportunities for Special Olympics events similar to Support the Court. Menges’ daughter, Amelia, is the junior varsity 2 coach at Ontario High School.
Three months ago, Support the Court was just a dream, Menges said in her game-opening remarks to the crowd. Now that the day has come and gone, she said it was everything she had hoped for.
“Definitely. Even more,” Menges said.
As she was running around and running the event, Menges said she wasn’t able to see too much of the game. But she said it was great to give other differently-abled players the opportunity to have a fun night of basketball.
“He loves this,” she said. “You know, the nice thing about this is Michael’s had the opportunity so much that it really was for the other players. To see them get that opportunity is nice. It’s wonderful to see that.”
Menges said every player was able to score a basket (or dish an assist to a unified player).
In the weeks leading up to Support the Court, Ontario varsity basketball coach Kevin Attila said he was excited to get to work with the team. With the game over, Attila mirrored Menges’ sentiments that the game was more than he’d hoped it would be.
“It was more, honestly,” Attila said. “It was just amazing how everything came together. Like, you just see the hard work that Nancy put in, her having a vision. It was just so cool how it all started with just an idea and it kind of generated momentum. To create what happened tonight, it was very special.”
Attila, who said that he didn’t have much experience working with differently-abled people before this year, said he enjoyed his experience with the Support the Court game.
“It just shows how much joy basketball brings,” Attila said. “And I think it just shows how it can bring people together. It was so much fun, getting to practice with them in the last week and seeing how much fun they have just making a basket. It just shows what basketball is really all about. Just the joy it brings people and the fun and the energy. And their enthusiasm. Everyone can learn so much from how much fun they had coming out to the court. It makes your appreciate the game, and the community.”
‘What it’s about’
Each team also included multiple “unified athletes”, which are normally-abled students who were put on the teams to help facilitate the game.
Tanner Hamilton, a senior at Vale High School, was one of the unified players for the Vale team. He said some of the players for the Vale team, who are also on the Vale High School basketball team, asked him to be a part of the Support the Court team.
“The players, they asked me to be on. I knew a couple months ago that I was going to be helping,” Hamilton said. “Every day during first period we would go and practice because they had some time. So I’d go and help them practice and stuff like that.”
Hamilton said helping his differently-abled peers is something that he is passionate about.
“Yah, for sure,” Hamilton said. “Some of the kids that were on the team, they actually played basketball. They might not get as much playing time as some other kids, so just seeing them on the court and having them play around kids that are the same ability and having them score and everyone cheer, that’s really what it’s about.”
Ontario senior Sawyer Elizondo was one of the unified players for the Ontario/Nyssa team. He said Menges brought the idea to him and he joined when Attila came aboard.
“She brought the idea, and she thought it would be a good idea,” Elizondo said. “I thought it was cool, so I hopped on it and asked Olee [Shell] to do it. We thought it would be fun.”
Elizondo, who is the same age as Michael Menges, said he had a lot of fun being on the same team with Menges.
“Michael is the heart of the team, I’d say so,” Elizondo said. “If we’re having a bad practice or whatever, he’s just always smiling and having fun. No matter the situation he’s always bringing us up.”
The game also included other differently-abled names, with Nyssa’s Carson Hartley taking the floor as a referee with normal basketball officials Mikell Dockter and Eric Evans.
While many in attendance thought Hartley made the calls evenly on both sides all night, he did have to dish out a technical foul to Ontario/Nyssa coach Tara Hartley, who accosted him over a missed foul (a staged heckling that they practiced ahead of time).
The game also kicked off with the national anthem sung by Nyssa’s Taylor Talbot, a U.S. Paralympic All-American who is legally blind.
Just before the opening tip, there was a ceremonial jumpshot made on behalf of Nyssa’s Karissa Medina-Villalba, who has muscular dystrophy and spends upwards of 23 hours a day in bed.
According to the announcement made, Medina-Villalba’s dream was to attend high school, which she now does through an iPad which allows her to interact with those at the school when she can’t be there.
At the game Tuesday, there was an iPad stand with a Nyssa “00” jersey on it that represented Medina-Villalba.
Nancy Menges said she would be waiting to hear feedback on whether or not Support the Court will be an annual event, but her gut reaction is that this will be a popular event for years to come.
“It feels like it’s going to be, from what people are saying,” she said. “We might have to go to three different schools next year because the kids are already telling [Attila] that they want to play.”