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'It helps me become a better person': On North Ridgeville's Unified basketball team, everyone is welcome

The players are equal parts heart and inspiration. All you need is a basketball and a smile.

NORTH RIDGEVILLE, Ohio — On the basketball court at North Ridgeville High School, it's all about teamwork, friendship, and understanding.

That's because when you're on the Unified Basketball Team, players — made up of students with and without physical and developmental challenges — are equals.

"My favorite part is just getting to know the kids and seeing them improve and creating the relationships with them," 17-year-old Hunter Roseto, the team's head coach, said.

On the Unified team, there are no rules, except to have fun.

"It's just encouraging others and making them try new things and do new things, and everyone's equal," Hunter told us. "Everyone plays the same amount, everybody sits with the same people. There's no, like, certain people do[ing] something over the other."

But competitive spirit? That's there, too. Just ask eighth grader Eric Hansen.

"I like to win," Eric said, proudly.

Most players team up with a buddy, a mentor always willing to help set up a shot.

"He helps me ... to give the ball," Eric said of his mentor, 14-year-old Carson Madis.

It's truly a camaraderie, enhancing the lives of these peers, erasing stigmas, and embracing these newly formed bonds.

"It helps me learn, you know?" Carson said. "It helps me become a better person, coach, friend."

"When you see the special-ed unit at school, they're kind of off doing their own thing," student-player Dain Bartlebaugh added. "And that's cool, but [with me and] my classes, I never really am able to connect with them, so here it's been special to me, just, like, building [a] friendship with them ... and it's pretty cool."

Roseto says the most gratifying part is seeing the unified movement spread through the halls at school.

"The support that we have from our school and our peers that aren't even on the team — like, 'Hey, good luck at your game tomorrow.' 'Hey, I'm so excited. I saw you practicing yesterday. You guys are looking great' — like that, it's the little stuff like that that just like means the world," he said. "There's no describable words that could tell you how much I love them ... and how much this team means to me."

Yes, when you step on the Unified Basketball Team's court, remember to leave your ego at the door, and lead with your heart.

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