Even on a Wednesday evening, it was every bit the experience as a Friday night.
Student athletes with special needs from Kalani and Roosevelt, along with their coaches, peer mentors and fans gathered at Kalani High School gymnasium for a basketball game Wednesday that was just like any other game played there, but at that same time was anything but.
Friday Night Lights, an event put on in collaboration between the University of Hawaii at Manoa Department of Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Science and the two participating schools, is designed to be an authentic game day experience for all involved.
"For high schools here, Friday night is a big night for events, for varsity level events and school-to-school competitions. It's prime time. And that's kind of how it came to be," said Dr. Nathan Murata, chair of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Department of Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Science. "To give these student athletes the chance to ride a bus, the same one that student athletes of every level and every sport ride to an event and back."
"It gives them that whole perspective of what it really is to be a student athlete," added Kalani coach Ryan Ige. "We try to keep it competitive, they do their best, and take it to heart."
From uniforms in school colors, structured warm up routines, officials in black and white stripes, to the cheering fans waving signs, it was the real-deal.
Every player was introduced over the public address, and as the game got underway, the intensity of the game was like any other played.
Both players and coaches were definitely in it to win it.
The excitement after each made basket though, was definitely more than the norm. And for the fans in attendance, it didn't seem to matter which team scored or who was winning. The cheers, ooh and ahhs were for anyone and everyone playing, regardless of which team you came for.
"When you watch the spectators from both teams in the stands, it doesn't matter who scores. Everybody is cheering for each side and to go down to the wire, buzzer beater the first game, overtime this one," said Murata. "Its building competition, and its building competition irrespective of what the outcome of game, its the participation, representing your school, that I think is very meaningful for them."
Down by four points in the final minute of play, Kalani rallied to tie the game with just over 10 seconds left in regulation, forcing the first ever overtime game. The Falcons went on to score twice more in the extra period to win the game 29-25.
While the event is clearly focused on providing an experience for the student athletes with special needs, a very nice side benefit is the impact felt by peer mentors through the experience.
"It helps the mentors understand that everyone has differences and everyone needs to be accepted," said Roosevelt coach Reggie Dela Cruz. "Special needs or not, everybody has different things that are challenges, and everyone needs that love and acceptance."
Logan Luke, one of the mentors for Kalani and a member of the Falcons' varsity girls basketball squad, embraced the experience to help.
"It was really fun and great experience for us because we got to help them," said Luke. "We came to practice and we give back and teach the game that we love to other who might not get to play as much."
The experience is also one that the coaches find meaning in as well.
"I work with these special needs students, so this is a way for me to see these kids in a different light and me being a coach and having a sports background really encourages me," said Dela Cruz.
Now in its second year, the event was blessed with not only community support at the school level to make things happen, but also from businesses, both local and mainland.
"We've been very fortunate to have the support from organizations to make this happen. The Matson Foundation (Gary Nakamatsu, Chairman) on board to help us, Allstate Insurance (Rikcy Muraoka, Muraoka Insurance Group) on board, Sugarland (Derwin Okinaka) be on board, it's invaluable," said Murata. "We've also had a California-based outfit called Team Prime Time Sports (Peter Struass) to provide the curriculum to make it a more structured event. We are also very appreciative of the College of Education, UH Manoa over the years."
Moving forward, organizers hope that the event can continue to expand and increase not only the number of schools and student athletes participating, but the scope of the event as well.
"It's building some momentum. We see the fans smiling regardless of who's scoring. We see a lot of support with the private sector as well," said Dela Cruz. "The big goal is to get more teams involved, maybe even have a season one day. Everybody who has a hand in it, that's kind of the vision for them."
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