In the spring of 2014, I took the court for my first Unified basketball practice through the Duke University Special Olympics. I came with all sorts of expectations and plans: I’d work on passing the ball and ease up on defense; it didn’t matter if I was out of shape, because surely we wouldn’t do actual sprints; I’d be a teacher, a leader, and a role model.

But only a few minutes into practice, as a sharp whistle blast signaled “GO!” and my teammates tore off the court in front of me, I realized the season would be nothing like I’d anticipated.

Our starting center could dunk. Our point guard’s ball handling skills were fantastic. The team’s three-point percentage was way higher than my individual one ever was, and on our best days, our rebounding stats weren’t too shabby either. The other Duke students and I certainly played an important role on the team – we brought court vision, made key passes, and sometimes hit shots that signaled critical momentum changes in games – but so did everyone else.

We weren’t leaders, but learners. And as the season went on, my teammates became my friends. The athletes taught me about basketball, camaraderie, and the true meaning of acceptance. We were a unit – “unified” – on and off the court, and it showed in how we played, supporting each other through the ups and downs. After our last game, our showdown against the UNC Unified team, our MVP athlete told the on-site ESPN reporters just how much the season had meant to him:

“This is what it’s all about. Being out here together to play basketball, and learning more about one another. It’s just really a lot of fun.”

With words of inspiration like that, of course I’ve been back every season since! Special Olympics has become my second home on Duke’s campus, and brings me more fun and genuine joy than anything else I’m involved in. This Saturday, March 5th, marks the 3rd annual meeting between Duke and UNC teams for the “Battle of the Blues” Unified game. With the series split 1-1, and the ESPN cameras on the way, excitement is rising.

I’ll be cheering hard for my Blue Devils team, but at the end of the day, everyone who comes to compete and to cheer walks away a winner. The friendships built, and the mounting community of acceptance they contribute to, is the real reason I play Unified.