Ismael Shah’s life has already changed for the better because of Special Olympics sports, and now he has the experience of a lifetime in front of him.
The 17-year-old Smoky Hill High School student is part of the school’s Unified basketball team, which has been selected to represent Colorado in the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Florida, June 5-10.
Shah is one of seven players plus three partners that will represent Colorado in play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, the same venue that the NBA used when it played its season in the “bubble” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m honored because NBA legends and Hall of Famers went on that court and current players went on that court, so I’m really excited,” Shah said at the Smoky Hill team’s last practice before it departed.
“I have an opportunity to go with my incredible team and with my incredible coaches and see new things in Florida. I’ve never been there before and I just want to see everything. I want to see us grow and see what our team can do.”
Because of its track record of annual success, the Smoky Hill Unified team got asked to represent the state at the USA Games, which is an Olympics-like event that happens every four years.
The Buffaloes got the invitation last August, which organizer Kelton Coppinger — a Special Education teacher at Smoky Hill — said he accepted immediately.
Cory Chandler, programs manager at Special Olympics Colorado, who headed the Unified program at Grandview previously, said the Smoky Hill team had been picked out of a group of 30-40 teams, which was “big honor” and came in large part due to the success of the program. The last time the USA Games were contested, Colorado did not have a team in the basketball event.
The basketball team is part of a contingent of 86 athletes from Colorado that were picked to compete in Orlando.
The Smoky Hill team won the Colorado Special Olympics state championship and has since prepared for a different level of competition, as it is set to face teams from several other states.
The makeup of the team has changed a bit ahead of the trip — picking up players from a couple of other schools, including Kyson Clement (son of Vista PEAK boys basketball coach Keenon Clement) from Eaglecrest — and Coppinger said the group that will play in the USA Games has more higher-functioning athletes.
The team is made up of seven athletes with three helpers in Anthony Harris Jr., Amrajie Bass and Kaiden McElhiney. Harris Jr. starred on the Smoky Hill football and boys basketball teams, Bass was one of the leaders on the school’s softball team and McElhiney plays football.
The biggest difference between regular season play and the USA Games is that helpers can score and play in the flow of the game, while they usually just rebound and set up shots for the athletes.
That brings into play the abilities of Harris Jr., one of Colorado’s most explosive players.
“Anthony is a freak of nature athlete,” Kyson Clement said. “I can’t find the words. He’s just a fun human being to hang out and play with. I’ve seen some of his games with Smoky. He is an amazing human being.”
Harris Jr. is looking forward to the experience with the team in Florida and said he would try to “make it good for them” in any way he can. He’s noticed the built-in chemistry.
“They’ve all played with each other before,” Harris Jr. said. “Kyson and Tor (Bird) are new to the team, so they’ve all got experience together. When they came in, it was flawless. I just try to fit in.”
Clement — who said he is a big fan of the Golden State Warriors, who are currently playing the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals — is also looking forward to playing on the courts that NBA players such as Steph Curry and Draymond Green were on a couple of years ago.
“Since I got the invitation, I was like ‘yes, I want to go,’” he said. “There is a one in a million chance to do this, so 100 percent I wanted to. I felt emotional tears of joy, pretty much.”
The team begins with pool play and then can advance to the medal round where it can go for the gold medal. A national gold medal would send the Smoky Hill team on to the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin, Germany, next June.
No matter what happens in the USA Games, Shah has grown tremendously since he arrived at Smoky Hill and began to play Unified sports, both basketball and flag football. He hopes to add track next year.
“My dad inspired me to join more clubs and I can’t thank him enough or my coaches enough,” Shah said. “I enjoy everything about it. I used to be antisocial. When I came here as a freshman, I could not talk to anybody. I was so scared. I only had one friend I could talk to and over the years as I joined Unified sports, it changed my whole life.
“There’s a quote that says ‘don’t think about the past, think about how far you’ve come.’ I’m thinking about how far I’ve come and how much I’ve accomplished at Smoky Hill. Hopefully we win so we can go to Germany. I really want that on my resume.”
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports