NEW YORK -- At The World’s Most Famous Arena, the familiar sound of sneakers squeaking filled the air during Saturday morning of NBA All-Star 2015 earlier this month.

Combine that with the nifty no-look passes, sweet shooting forms and battles for errant balls and you could be forgiven for thinking the New York Knicks were on the floor at Madison Square Garden.

Instead, it was a select group of impressive athletes playing an eye-opening contest for many of the large crowd in attendance – the fourth-annual NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Sports basketball game, which featured 12 Special Olympics athletes from around the world paired with NBA Legends like Chris Mullin and Dell Curry, and current WNBA stars like Ruth Riley and Elena Delle Donne.

NBA Play Unified
Special Olympics athlete celebrates unified basketball with WNBA star Elena Delle Donne.

The Unified game brings together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities as teammates to showcase the power of unification and to foster an environment of acceptance and inclusion.

“It’s hugely important – it’s game-changing for the lives of our athletes and for the lives of the people who connect with them,” said Kirsten Seckler, Chief Marketing Officer for Special Olympics. “Sadly, people with intellectual disabilities are the most marginalized population on Earth. People think ‘They can’t’ before they think ‘They can,’ so Unified sports breaks down that barrier immediately because sports are so universal. People play with our athletes and realize, ‘Wow!’ ”

The game itself was filled with fast-paced, back-and-forth action, as the Special Olympics athletes showed off their skills on the big stage and participated in a halftime skills showcase. The players received encouragement and cheers after every shot from honorary coaches that included NBA standouts Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Cody Zeller, Andre Drummond, adding to the celebratory nature of the contest. The East squad rallied for a dramatic 58-56 triumph, but the final score hardly mattered to those who participated.

NBA Play Unified

“I had a good time – I had some little moments,” said Minnesota native Abel Mehari. “I just wanted to get a run in and have some fun. I wasn’t really caring about how much I made because I wanted to have fun and have a good time.”

Many of the pros who participated were veterans of the event, and several remarked that the popularity of the Unified game has been growing since the start of the event in 2012. Feeding off the energy and enthusiasm of the Special Olympians keeps them coming back for more.

“It’s a lot of fun,” NBA Legend Detlef Schrempf said. “The kids love it. They come from all over the world and are passionate about basketball. We just have a good time. They’re competitive. They really want to play hard, but they are also compassionate. They knew a couple of players hadn’t made a shot, so we made sure they got a shot up, and everyone was cheering for them.”

Coca-Cola is a founding partner of Special Olympics, and will serve as an official partner of the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles. Many of the athletes who participated in the Unified Games will return this summer to play the game they love on a global stage.

NBA Play Unified

“It’s great to learn, but it is different because in my country we play a different way, so I'm getting to learn everyone’s style from their country,” Nigeria’s Chidalu Onwunze said through her translator.

Added Jacob Majors, a speedy guard from New Orleans: “I’ve been playing basketball all my life. I like playing with these girls and boys. It makes me feel good. It’s a good team and it’s good competition.”

The Special Olympians had an action-packed NBA All-Star. Friday morning, they traveled to the NBA House at Moynihan Station for a Unified practice session. There, they took the court, going through drills and playing a scrimmage.

NBA Play Unified

On Saturday, as the Special Olympics athletes received their medals and posed on the court at Madison Square Garden alongside some of their professional idols in the aftermath of their day in the spotlight, the smiles on their faces said it all.

“Basketball is a sport I’ve been playing since sixth grade,” said Keyuana Davis of Florida. “I get to see some of the celebrities and play basketball against them. I just love it.”