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Basketball Players On Unified Teams Swap Skills, ‘Learn Love’

Unified partners recount how they started playing with their teams and the friendships they formed along the way.
Young woman wearing a basketball jersey smiles
Shendi Temali is one of the partners from the Unified basketball squad from Shkoder, Albania

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Giannis Antetokounmpo are Shendi Temali’s basketball idols, but when it comes to picking her dream team, none of them make the cut.

“We’re the best team, of course. I think we are the best team,” she said in reference to her Unified basketball squad from Shkoder, Albania.

Temali is one of the team’s Unified partners. Unified partners are players without disabilities who train and compete alongside teammates with an intellectual disability. Each of the eight teams that participated in the Regional West Balkans Unified 3x3 Basketball Tournament, held in Tirana, Albania from 1 to 3 December 2023, during European Basketball Week, followed this format.

For Temali, who took up basketball at 15 years old, the tournament was the first experience of playing alongside people with intellectual disabilities. Her mom’s best friend coaches a Special Olympics team and invited her to join the project.

Temali showed immediate interest and went to her first training session with the team in September 2023. In the months since she has become a regular presence at practices. “I try to help with the technique sometimes and I try to help the other teammates with their shooting,” Temali said. “[The training] is slower because they just started, but I really enjoy it because it’s really fun.”

Like Temali, Ajlin Shtylla joined Tirana’s Unified Galaktiket team after receiving an invitation. In her case, however, the invite did not come from a family friend, but a teacher.

The young basketball player was intrigued. She has a cousin with an intellectual disability, but as he lives in the United States and Shtylla does not interact with him as much as she would like. Joining a Unified team was an opportunity to understand him better.

“I like the people,” Shtylla said of her Galaktiket teammates. “They’re really fun and they are active. They pass the balls; they communicate well with each other.

“They try to play hard and do whatever we tell them or what they learn at the games.”

Two men wearing basketball jerseys on a basketball court posing and smiling at the camera
Partner Petar Petrovski with athlete Gorjan Stojkovski of North Macedonia

Petar Petrovski, a Unified partner on the North Macedonia team, assumed this role five years ago. A former club basketball player with a career that spanned more than a decade, he decided to join a Unified team because he missed basketball “very much.”

He has since accompanied the national delegation to the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and is now training with his Unified team up to two times per week.

“It’s interesting,” Petrovski said. “I was participating in our national basketball league until two years ago and when I finished, I wanted to participate again in basketball, but in different ways.”

In addition to playing on the court, Petrovski uses his extensive background in the sport to guide his new teammates through drills and help hone their technique.

But basketball training, however enjoyable, is not the main highlight of the experience for the Unified partners. Rather, it is the new friendships they have gained on this journey.

It only takes a few seconds to see the bond that Petrovski has with Gorjan Stojkovski, a fellow North Macedonian player. The two athletes high five each other, hug after scoring points and celebrate boisterously after the final buzzer.

The Galaktiket players have become friends outside the playing field as well. They go on outdoor excursions together and share meals in the city. “They enjoy it and they have a lot of fun with us,” Shtylla said. “They like to interact with each other and the partners.”

After two full months of training with the Unified team, Temali has also formed new friendships and discovered more about her teammates. “I learned how to communicate with people with disabilities and I think I got more empathy,” Temali said. “I don’t really consider it as a disability because it’s like their special abilities. We have ours, they have their’s, and we try just to fit in and train with each other.

“They taught me some love,” she concluded. “I learned that they can really produce love for everyone.”

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