UWO basketball gives back

Morgan Van Lanen

For the UW Oshkosh men’s basketball team, Saturday night’s game was not about the numbers on the scoreboard. It was not about who had the best shooting percentage or who made the most free throws. It was not even about which team lost and which team won at the end of it all. Rather, Saturday night’s Special Olympics’ Unity game was all about giving those with special needs the opportunity to participate in the game UWO basketball players take for granted every day. “Our guys realize that they are very blessed, athletically and in opportunities they have,” men’s basketball head coach Pat Juckem said. “Any time you can be in an environment like this, you are even more aware of that. It’s just great that there’s this game that we all love, that we can all share. There’s a certain bond that is created, regardless of ability level. I think that is very meaningful.” For the 40th consecutive year, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh hosted the Special Olympics Indoor Sports Tournament on April 9 and 10 at Kolf Sports Center for athletes with special needs. 650 athletes took part in basketball skills, team basketball and gymnastics, and were housed in Gruenhagen Conference Center. According to Juckem, there were about 40 different basketball teams that took part in tournament. During Saturday’s Unity game, Juckem’s players were mixed with Special Olympics athletes and played two 30-minute matches. Last year they helped teach participants basketball skills like dribbling and shooting. The UWO women’s basketball team also took part in this year’s event, as they ran concessions on Saturday. Juckem described how great the atmosphere was during Saturday’s Unity game. “The athletes were very serious,” Juckem said. “They didn’t want our guys dogging it, so our guys certainly competed. It was thrilling when there was a lot of comaraderie; the bench was very active and involved. It was just a very positive experience for all of the athletes, the parents, and the supporters. There were a lot of fans who were hooting and hollering when one of our guys would go and try to dunk or a great play was made. It was a really nice environment.” With Saturday night being very eventful in Oshkosh for college students, Juckem believes his players committing their time to the Unity Game was even more special. His players were not told they had to volunteer at the event, rather the coaches left it up to them to decide. The decision was easy for junior guard Jacob Laihinen. “Our team loves to try and volunteer as much as possible,” Laihinen said. “We understand the impact that us helping out at the Unity game had on the athletes participating. We certainly enjoyed the experience and, from the looks on the athletes faces throughout, it seemed like they enjoyed it as well.” For freshman guard Kyle Beyak, playing in the Unity game was a time to talk with the athletes about their love of basketball, share relatable stories and just have fun. “I think I will remember this experience for the rest of my life,” Beyak said. “But more importantly, it made me want to help out again. To see the pure enjoyment and excitement to play with and against each other in these games made it all worthwhile.” Juckem said he hopes his team can make an annual tradition of volunteering at the Special Olympics Indoor Sports Tournament. He also hopes to see more events involving the Special Olympics incorporated here on campus in the future. Junior forward Sean Dwyer said he admired the athletes’ constant positivity, and he hopes they took away as much from the weekend as he did. He said looks forward to being able to help out again next year. “My favorite part was being able to put a smile on the athletes’ faces and know that I have made an impact in their life,” Dwyer said. “I hope those games will be something they remember for a long time.”