The ball is propelled towards the hoop with an uneasy thrust that achieves sufficient altitude before it bounces once, twice, three times on the rim as time seems to stand still for players, coaches and spectators who all hold their breath.
Then, as if willed by the minds of all present, the ball drops quickly through the white net as the grinning shooter jumps up and down while teammates offer high-fives, shrieks of joy erupting from spectators.
Among the crowd, tears – the happy type – trickle down the faces of parents and teachers. And yes, even a few students are seen wiping away evidence.
It's known as the Unity Game at PLHS, an event providing unusual benefits for both a contingent of special needs students and the regular student population, staff and community as they witness the joy, skills and accomplishments of these special needs players and cheerleaders.
These are the types of lessons not seen enough in our society, the ones that leave lasting impressions.
"Students that were cheering in the stands feel connected to students with different abilities," said PLHS Principal Hans Becker. "In my experience with teenagers, they are typically somewhat self-centered. That’s not the case at PLHS, and is certainly not evident at the Unity Game."
Nobody in the gym was happier than Alex Van Heuven, PLHS athletic director, as she watched the first-ever Unity Game unfold last year. A basketball game featuring special needs students as players and cheerleaders, the game gives these students an opportunity to play, compete and shine in front of a large audience.
Van Heuven is eagerly awaiting the second annual PLHS Unity Game to be held Feb. 2 at 5:15 p.m. in the main gym on campus. Admission for all is free, and Van Heusen encourages community members to attend and witness a positive example of their youth.
This year, she expects to have three special needs cheerleaders leading spectators with 6-7 others on the playing rosters. The students have moderate to severe disabilities and are taught on a daily basis by Laurie Schusterman.
And there will be a number of VIP's in the stands as well. Van Heuven says word of last year's game traveled far and wide throughout the region and Scott Giusti, director of physical education, health and interscholastic athletics for the San Diego Unified School District will be on hand along with the every member of the district's board of education. San Diego CIF commissioner Jerry Schniepp is also among those expected.
Van Heuven was inspired by a video of such events shown at a CIF symposium two years ago and introduced the idea at PLHS in the fall of 2015. School groups quickly embraced the event and the first Unity Game was played last January.
But the Unity Game is not a one-day event.
"The special needs students have been attending the regular basketball practices of our boys and girls teams every Thursday, doing all the drills the players are doing," Van Heuven said. "Then, after observing the interaction skills of the regular players, our coaches and administrators choose some of the regular players to be play in the Unity Game and the others show up as coaches in suits with clipboards."
Boys and girls varsity basketball coaches Josh Aros and Candia Sierra serve as game referees for the game, which is played in two 12-minute halves.
The fun begins with cheerleaders forming a tunnel for each special player as they run onto the court to their own chosen "walk-out song" playing over the PA system and their names are called out.
While there are regular boys and girls team players on the court at all times, their job is to rebound the ball, pass it to the special needs players and assist them on the court.
The game is played in a "Maroon vs. Gold" format with all players in one of the two color uniforms. In this way, spectators and players are all on the "home team." Each team includes members of the boys and girls varsity teams along with several special needs players.
Since last year's game, Van Heuven has spoken at a CIF symposium about its success and she has been fielding inquiries from numerous Southern California schools eager to duplicate the Pointers' success.
For Becker, who began his career as a special education teacher, the game gave each student a special gift.
"I am so proud of Alex and this idea she created and presented to me," Becker said. "I loved seeing the players and cheerleaders feeling proud of their accomplishments. For a brief time, these young men and women were superstars. They really had the opportunity to feel genuine appreciation from our student body. It really cemented the idea that at PLHS, we are all Pointers."
A measure of just how much the Unity Game meant to special needs students also came from from the parents of players, who told Becker their students would not take off game jerseys for days following the event, even insisting on sleeping in them.
"If our role as educators is to prepare today’s youth for leading the world, then giving opportunities for empathy is always important," concluded Becker.
WHAT: Second annual Unity Game
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 2, 5:15 p.m.
WHERE: PLHS Main Gym