NBA, Special Olympics unite at All-Star

From the time he was a young boy, Izzy Scialabba loved basketball. His 12 older siblings played, and as soon as he was able, he picked up the sport too. But growing up, Izzy says, “I was the kid who didn’t get the ball.” After the Pennsylvania native, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and mild cerebral palsy, started high school, he began playing with Special Olympics. Today at 22, Izzy makes sure all his teammates are involved in the game. “Now,” he says, “I’m the kid who starts with the ball and finds the best way for the team to get it in the basket.”

Izzy, who studies Veterinary Technology at a community college, was one of 12 Special Olympics athletes from four countries who played in the 9th annual NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Sports® Basketball Game during NBA All-Star weekend. They took the court alongside nine WNBA and NBA legends and current players in a game that “showcases the power of inclusion through sports,” says Tara Baker, Director of Marketing and Communications with Special Olympics, a global organization for people who have intellectual disabilities.

Basketball is one of the most popular sports among Special Olympics athletes. “Basketball, because you have to work as a team and communicate on the court, really lends itself for people with and without intellectual disabilities to partner on the court and compete and have a great experience,” says Baker.

The relationship between the NBA and Special Olympics dates back 45 years, not long after Special Olympics formed in 1968. The Unified Sports game debuted at the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend and it “highlights the values of inclusion, hard work, respect and teamwork that is the foundation of our longstanding partnership with Special Olympics,” says Todd Jacobson, NBA Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility. “This year’s game was incredible.”

When Izzy entered the game, he sparked the Home team with his passes and energy and his team raced to a 31-16 halftime lead. One of his teammates was Jasmine Burnham, an 18-year-old high school senior from Florida. She started playing when she was 5. “My favorite part is defense,” says Jasmine, who has Treacher-Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder. “I’m aggressive and playing basketball helps release my stress. But it’s also a lot of fun.”

Sure enough, Jasmine is all over the court, at one point bodying up NBA legend Muggsy Bogues when he tries to drive the lane. On the bench, she chats up teammate Cheyenne Parker of the Chicago Sky, and during a break, she makes several attempts to high five NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, who raises his hand as high as possible. Jasmine eventually settles for slapping his inner forearm.

“At the NBA, we believe that everyone has a gift or talent,” says Mutombo, a Special Olympics and NBA Global Ambassador. “Playing basketball is unifying, and this game is a lot of fun for everyone.”

Jasmine and Izzy’s team gives up their entire halftime lead but eventually pulls out a 44-43 victory that has the crowd cheering. Afterward, the players and legends hug and high five each other before gathering at half court for photos.

The next morning, they participate in the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Clinic. The players agreed the memories they created during All-Star Weekend will stay with them.

“It was exciting. I was very honored to have the chance of not only meeting people that I grew up watching but to play with and against them,” says Izzy, who finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. “Growing up, I played with a lot of kids that never gave up the ball because they wanted to be the hero. But basketball is about teamwork. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”