A couple of weeks ago, I left work early to attend the final home game of the MVRHS Unified Basketball team. It was unlike any other high school basketball I’ve ever seen.
The team includes all genders and skill levels, and intentionally includes all physical and neurological abilities. Some players are clearly skilled. Others don’t care so much about hand placement or form, and some need a lot of time to figure out how to get their body to do what their mind has planned. There’s occasionally a more aggressive defender, but for the most part, if you need a few extra bounces, need to take a step left or right, everyone’s cool with it. Ref too. The player with the ball doesn’t pass to the kid with the hot hands. They pass it to the one who hasn’t had a chance for a while. Several passes were handoffs to the girl in the wheelchair who can’t physically grip the ball, but every team needs its John Stockton. And just like Stockton, her assists put points on the board.
This was a “pack the stands” game — the whole school was encouraged to come. The M.V. football team, fresh off their win in Nantucket, sat together in their white jerseys and cheered on their fellow Vineyard athletes. The PA announcer, a student in his letterman’s jacket, called everyone’s successful shots — Vineyard and visiting Falmouth — with equal enthusiasm.
Everyone cheers for everyone in Unified Basketball.
One of the Falmouth players accidentally knocked down a Vineyarder at one point. No foul was called, no incredulous denial of what just happened — the whole game just stopped. The Falmouth player immediately turned back to help her up, and to make sure she was OK. He didn’t mean it.
The whole gym cheered.
We saw a little little trick action too. Whenever No. 12 for Falmouth got the ball for a shot, he bounced it first under his right leg, then his left, then shot over his head like he was inbounding a soccer ball. He made it more often than not, and was infectiously gleeful when he did.
In my faith tradition, Jesus often describes what the world might look like if God were in charge, often starting these stories with the phrase, “The kingdom of God is like …” Well, the realm of God is clearly like a Unified Basketball game. The 6-foot player under the rim passes to his teammate, who’s about two feet shorter than he is, and makes sure she has a clear shot to the basket. The girl in a wheelchair feels the thrill of rushing up and down the court (with a little help from her teammate pushing her chair). You miss your shot? Here’s another chance. And another. And another. You miss all your shots, then finally make one? The crowd erupts in cheers — maybe even some of your opponents.
On Tuesday, Nov. 14, one of the players on the Unified team tragically died in a single-car accident. Waylon Sauer, a 17-year-old junior, was beloved by his teammates, known for his kindness. An Instagram post describes him as “a light to our team.” This life is all too unpredictable, short, and heartbreakingly unfair.
Which makes things like Unified Basketball all the more important. There is a time and place for speed and competition. But the world also needs places where patience and inclusion are more important, where we cheer each other on for tenacity over skill, for kindness over dominance, places where just trying is more important than doing it the “right way.”
We can all help create these places — coaches and parents, custodians, bus drivers, fans in the stands — but we also need the teammates. We need kids like Waylon to show up for practices where no one is watching, to hand the ball to others, get out of their way, and cheer for others’ success.
Thank you, Waylon, and your whole MVRHS Unified Team, for making Earth a little more like heaven.
The Rev. Mark Winters is the pastor at the Federated Church in Edgartown.