Kentridge High School hosted Pack the Gym night on Jan. 29 to support Kentridge, Kentwood and Kent-Meridian’s unified basketball teams.
The turnout and support the Kent community showed was unmatched.
Pack the Gym is an annual event that brings students and athletes with intellectual disabilities together as part of the unified sports program.
Kent School District has made an effort to start unified programs with financial support of a Special Olympics of Washington Grant at elementary and middle schools. But at the high school level, the competitive side picks up.
“Pack the Gym is one of their concepts that they push,” said Kent School District Athletics and Activities Director Brian Smith. “Kentridge has done it in the past really well… This is truly an event to not only highlight what great things are happening in Kent, but also showcases that our community understands and embraces it.”
Kent School District has 42 schools, and Smith wants every school to potentially have a unified sports program.
“We’re going to fund it and work with out partners to help us. There is nothing more pure that what you’re about to watch,” Smith said.
This was the second straight year the event included food trucks from around the King County area which gave attendees a plethora of options to eat and mingle before the basketball tipped off.
“Kentridge has truly embraced this. The unified program is a culture changer in a school,” Smith said. “We know what it can do.”
The addition of Kentwood and Kent-Meridian is a huge step in getting the entire city of Kent community involved. Kentridge has held the event for around a decade, COVID hampered the event but the event is as strong as ever now.
“If someone has a bias toward someone with an intellectual disability, if we can remove that, what other biases are going to go away? We’re willing to take that chance and push it forward. It’s a wonderful program and I think the community is starting to get that spirit as well,” Smith said.
Special Olympics connection
There has always been heavy support from Special Olympics of Washington at Pack the Gym, and that wasn’t any different this time around.
“We’re seeing general education students be social and engaging with students with disabilities that typically wouldn’t be seen. It is a great way to show students how to work with those that aren’t like each other … Our differences are our strengths and we should embrace and celebrate them,” said Emily Carter, who is the manager of Unified Champion Schools with the Special Olympics Washington group. “This will be an opportunity for our special education and general education students to have a collective memory of essentially the biggest pep rally they’ll ever see.”
Food trucks and music opened an hour before fans were let inside the gym and allowed to “pack” it. A big emphasis in an event like this is to look past each other’s differences and really feel a sense of one community.
“We’re an extremely diverse community and that includes kids with intellectual disabilities,” Smith said.”For all of us to be here and celebrate what we’re doing and a movement that we’re hoping happens in Kent, I couldn’t be more proud.”
People in attendance were interacting with players who had no shame rocking their game uniform pregame. The Kent community showed immense support for the event so much that when the player introductions started, fans were hard pressed to find a seat.
Pack the Gym featured three games where the three schools all got to play against each other in a scrimmage-round robin type game play. The event was less about the play on the court, and more about the support and love from everyone involved.
Kentridge and Kentwood were the two teams to start the basketball play inside the gym. The crowd created an insane atmosphere during player introductions, enough that players couldn’t even hear their numbers announced over the public address system.
At the start of the game, Kentridge scored the first basket, and the place went ballistic.
“I have never played around this many people… This is crazy,” said Kentridge athlete Macario Wells. “I felt the community standing with me and my teammates.”
Some players did have some nerves, which are expected playing in front of a packed gym: “I was kind of nervous… I just support my team whenever I can. It was good,” Kentridge athlete DaQuan Ervin said.
At the start of the game in unified basketball, teams must have three athletes and two partners. Athletes are players with intellectual or physical disabilities, and partners are players without disabilities.
“It’s great getting to know them before this game. We’ve had four to five weeks of practice building up to this and just getting to know everyone has been great,” said Tommy Jensen, a Kentridge partner.
Kentridge, being the most seasoned unified program, has set an example for other schools to follow. Their partners control the tempo and pace of the game, but do not take any shots. The scorers are all athletes. There is a lot of leadership that goes into that type of play, and it is not taken for granted.
“I just have to make sure everyone is staying positive and doing what they need to be doing” Jensen said. “I’m high-fiving them, keeping the vibes good and making sure everyone is excited to go play.”