Bigger than basketball

Lauren Adamski

The West Ottawa Middle School Unified Basketball team hadn’t scored yet in the game, then 7th grader Arnez Higgins got the ball. He dribbled down the court, stared the Holland Christian players in the eye, and flung the ball from just over half-court. The ball went so high it almost grazed the ceiling before hitting the backboard and falling through the hoop. The coaches held their breath as the ball floated through the air, then exploded with excitement, but their excitement was unmatchable to Higgins’. 

   Higgins is a strong player on West Ottawa’s Middle School Unified Basketball team. He enjoyed playing on the team, making new friends, and is eager to continue playing next year and become a team leader. 

   This team is new to West Ottawa this year and has influenced the culture of the middle schools. 

   Instructor Cara Montgomery started the team. “My original spark came from a new student who moved to West Ottawa from another school. He was involved in a Unified Basketball team at his old school and asked if we had a team at West Ottawa. I said no, but we need one,” Montgomery said. 

   From there the hard work began. Montgomery reached out to High School Unified Basketball CoachJenna Plewes for guidance and to find some potential coaches. Plewes connected her with four boys who are heavily involved in the LINKs program at the high school to coach for Montgomery’s team. One coach, Sr. Noah Boggs, said, “I was nervous about how it would turn out but I’m relieved that I went for it and did it because it was a lot of fun.” 

   The team met every Wednesday after school to practice. Montgomery enjoyed attending their practices. “We called practice our joy; Wednesday afternoons was our favorite time of the day, it just made us smile,” Montgomery said. Practices were filled with much joy for all individuals, but that energy was not comparable to the energy at their games. 

   At a game against Holland Christian, an empty row of bleachers in the stands was hard to come by at Rose Park Elementary. People with various connections to the players were present in the stands. Students came decked out in their Hawaiian attire forming their own mini version of a Black Hole. Leaning towards the team’s bench, they gave words of encouragement and affirmation.

   6th grader Jamarion Shields-Jackson pumped his fist with joy when he heard his classmates chanting his name and erupting with noise in celebration after he made a basket. Garrison Gardiner was there to give him a high five and propel the energy into their next possession. 

   Gardiner is a link on the Unified Basketball team and his older brother, Charlie Gardiner, coaches the team. “My role was to just be there and encourage them. They do everything themselves, they just need a little guidance and push. Once they get rolling, they’re having a lot of fun. I have had an amazing time seeing people laugh and smile, and it’s a wonderful feeling,” Gardiner said. 

   The goal of this team, however, was bigger than basketball. “The friendships that have been formed where students would never have been friends before,” Montgomery said. Her students can now seek guidance from their peers and have friends in the school they know they can count on. When they need help, a student is always there to help walk them to class or ask about their day. These basketball players have become celebrities at the school. They have changed the culture of the school to be more welcoming and inclusive. They are the reason that the school has become a better place for all students.