This weekend at the 2012 NBA All-Star game in Orlando, Florida, 12 Special Olympics athletes have descended from across North America to show the world their abilities, to play ball with the best and above all, to demonstrate the unifying power of sports.

Sunday will mark the first-ever NBA Cares Special Olympics Unity Sports Basketball Game, a celebrity-filled exhibition game that will showcase the power of our Special Olympics Unified Sports program – that pairs athletes with and without disabilities as teammates.

There are half a million people across the world who participate in Unified Sports, but there is a potential for so much growth, and a global stage like NBA All-Star weekend is a great opportunity to show the world why they should take notice and get involved.

But before anyone takes to the basketball court, today was first and foremost about coming together and fostering that spirit of unity.  Today was the NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service, which celebrates the NBA’s commitment to social responsibility.  More than 1500 NBA supporters, volunteers and all-stars themselves pitched in this afternoon at three locations throughout Central Florida to create and refurbish places to live, learn or play.

Special Olympics athlete Robert Cooper shows off his gold medal from the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games as he assists in the 2012 NBA All-Star Day of ServiceOur Special Olympics athletes, their chaperones and staff worked with KaBOOM! and NBA Cares to help build a 5,000 square foot playground for local children at Children’s Safety Village of Central Florida.  It was a hard-working and inspiring afternoon for everyone involved.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, even stopped by to lend a hand at the playground build.  He worked alongside some of our Special Olympics’ athletes, and took a moment to speak to their efforts:

“I’m thrilled to be out here today and to see your athletes working so unbelievably hard.  It’s so important that abled, non-disabled; people with abilities, disabilities; that all folks have a chance to play and compete, and to just have some fun together. For everyone participating it’s truly a transformational opportunity.  I think (Special Olympics) Project Unify is doing a fantastic job around the country, and we’re thrilled to be just a small, small part of that success.”

Unified Sports are a key component of our Project Unify program, that the U.S. Department of Education supports.  At the moment over 2000 schools in 42 states have Unified Sports athletic programs!  Unified Sports is expanding globally, bringing together people from all over the world together to foster a community of acceptance.

US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, works alongside Special Olympics' volutneers Jackie Buxton (OR), Kerri Gilroy (MA) and Katie Waterstreet (OR)

Speaking of community, Special Olympics athlete Anthony Nunn from Minnesota was proud to help out on a project today that gave back to the local community.  “I feel very happy that I had a chance to contribute to something that’s going to be a place that kids can play for a long time.”

Special Olympics athlete Anthony Nunn (MN) works with NBA legend and longtime Special Olympics supporter Dikembe Mutombo at NBA Cares Day of Service in Orlando, FLKatie Waterstreet, of Portland, Oregon, and coach of Special Olympics’ athlete Jackie Buxton, Portland said of today’s Day of Service project:  “To see that neighborhood and to be able to give them something; something really from the heart, that was just amazing.” She couldn’t put her experience so far into words except to say “Overwhelmed. Amazed. Honored. Excited. Happy.”

Athletes, coaches and staff from Special Olympics celebrate their hard work to help build a KaBOOM playground with the NBA

That does a fairly good job of summing up the feelings swirling here in Orlando thus far.  Our Special Olympics athletes were able to show they could contribute today, to something bigger than themselves, to something that will be a legacy left here in Orlando and something that fostered the spirit of unity everyone is working to embrace.

All of that said, Anthony Nunn made it a point to add: “Today was great, yeah, but I’m ready. I’m ready to get on the court and get going!”

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