OAKLEY -- Tauraus"TJ" Johnson was itching for the action to start.
Freedom High School's gymnasium reverberated with the excitement of the hundreds who had come to witness this first basketball game of its kind on the Oakley campus and the 15-year-old freshman couldn't sit still as he waited for the tipoff.
"I'm ready to get my head in the game," he said.
No matter that TJ had never played on a basketball team before. The big, handsome boy exuded the same confidence as the varsity athletes he and a few of his classmates had practiced with several times over the past two weeks.
Monday's faceoff between the Freedom Falcons and Heritage High School's Patriots marked the first in a six-game series known as Unified Sports, an offshoot of Special Olympics that gives intellectually disabled students an opportunity to compete with their peers in the school's mainstream population.
Since the inception of Unified Sports in 1989, this inclusionary approach to competitive sports has spread to all 50 states. Liberty Union High School District's three schools have formed the first league in Northern California.
While Special Olympics are usually one-day events, Unified Sports competition takes place over the course of a season, said Freedom High School Athletic Director Steve Amaro, who introduced the idea to the school district.
In addition, participation in Special Olympics is limited to the developmentally disabled demographic, whereas Unified Sports allows youths with conditions such as Down syndrome or autism to represent their schools by playing on teams with non-disabled athletes, he said.
The intersection of those two worlds that often coexist separately on campus can benefit both groups of young people, Amaro said.
With the mingling comes lessons in compassion, for starters.
"I would hope that (students in the general population) gain a better appreciation ... for the people who are around them," Amaro said.
Without Unified Sports, "they'd miss a chance to appreciate the struggle that others have. When you step out of your own shoes, you become a better person for seeing things from a new perspective."
Heritage High School senior Kelsey Shanks is impressed by the cheerful attitudes she encounters among special education students on the Patriots team.
"I would love to learn from that and always have a smile on my face," she said.
For their part, special education students feel included in campus life and have a chance at making friendships with athletes they look up to, Amaro said.
Until May 15, basketball teams at Freedom, Heritage and Liberty high schools each will play two games, the season culminating with every special education student earning a varsity letter.
Amaro and Special Olympics officials modified some rules and created others so that general education students don't dominate the games. Varsity athletes can't make more than five baskets per quarter and upon taking possession of the ball a team must pass it among its members three times so that special education students can try to shoot for the hoop instead of one person grabbing the ball and scoring.
At Monday's game, referees weren't calling fouls when players forgot to dribble the ball while moving around the court.
There wasn't any of the usual boisterous rivalry, either.
Some students encouraged tentative teammates to raise their arms in case the ball came their way on a rebound. When a special education student missed a shot, more seasoned players threw the ball back to him or her for another try. And the entire audience roared its approval when a boy limped to the hoop and, hoisting the ball up with his one good arm, tossed it through the net.
"Today's about them -- it's not about us," Shanks said. "It's their day to shine."
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.
The remaining games of the Unified Sports season in the Liberty Union High School District are as follows:
4 p.m. Thursday, Liberty High School vs. Heritage High School, 101 American Ave., Brentwood
4 p.m. Monday, Freedom High School vs. Liberty High School, 850 Second St., Brentwood
4 p.m. May 7, Liberty High School vs. Freedom High School, 1050 Neroly Road, Oakley
4 p.m. May 14, Freedom High School vs. Heritage High School, 101 American Ave., Brentwood
4 p.m. May 15, Liberty High School vs. Heritage High School, 101 American Ave., Brentwood