New L.A. school district basketball league scores points by unifying students

Determination: The Hollywood Sheiks, along with coach Jennifer Overlock, watch with as their teammates try to get them a shot at the championship trophy. Photo by Erik Luna.

By Erik Luna

The gym of the Roybal Learning Center near Echo Park sees plenty of basketball action. But last Friday, the Roybal gym hosted L.A. Unified’s first basketball tournament with teams composed of special education and general education students. The inaugural tournament for The Unified Basketball League is part of a pilot program intended to build a sense of camaraderie and promote respect and acceptance for all the players regardless of disability. The league currently consists of only six high schools – including Belmont High, Miguel Contreras and Roybal, which draw students from Echo Park and other nearby neighborhoods – but might be expanded.

“Some of these students never get a chance to play in front of a big crowd like this,” said Jessica Sanchez, an aunt of one of the players, said during the tournament. “I’ve never seen these kids so excited about something,”

Coordinator for Adapted Physical Education Cyndi Martinich said the school district is planning on making the UBL tournament an annual event and expanding the program overall. “This first time out we did it on a fairly small scale, with only six high schools participating. We did this so we can solve the problems that inevitably comes out,” Martinich said. “Hopefully, for next year we will be able to expand it to a larger scale, so that all comprehensive high schools would have an opportunity to participate in such a program.”

Admiration: Roybal Titan Jonathan Peña admires his team's runner-up trophy. Photo by Erik Luna

Martinich also stated that expanding the league depends on whether there is enough money in the school district budget to pay transportation costs to get the players to the games. “All the instruction is done during the school day by the adapted physical education teachers as part as the curriculum for the students. So there were no costs associated with that.”

Candice Villagran, the adapted physical education teacher who coached the Roybal UBL  team,  said she thought the tournament was a success.

“Well, it was the first of its kind in the state of California, so we ran it with a trial-and-error mentality,” Villagran said. “But I’m really proud of how it turned out, and I’m proud for the students. It actually made the general education students aware of the special education students and was able to bridge a gap. General education students even say ‘hi’ in the hallways to the special education kids.”

At last week’s tournament, teams competed for a championship trophy. After three hours of seemingly non-stop play, two champions were crowned. Los Angeles High School, led by Koko Lytie,  won top honors for Division 1 and Hollywood High, led by coach Jennifer Overlock, won the Division 2 trophy. Each student that played in the tournament received a special ribbon recognizing his or her participation with the UBL. As the final results came in for the tournament, students and parents alike started chanting for their respective schools.

After the awards ceremony, every student wanted to hold the trophy. Jonathan Peña, a student at Roybal, held his teams’ trophy before carefully passing it on to another player. “Don’t scratch it though,” Peña said, as he handed over the trophy to one of his teammates.

It was clearly very important to him.

Erik Luna, a life-long resident of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, is the Editor-in-Chief of Campus News, the student newspaper of East Los Angeles College.


  1. Thank you Erik for your fine story on such a wonderful program and event. If I learn of next year’s event I will head over and cheer these kids on. Thank you Eastsider for posting this story.

  2. Near Echo Park ? You mean Roybal learning center in Downtown LA ?

  3. very cool – cool story.

    agree – thx for posting

  4. Is this program taking donations? Are there other ways the public can support or contribute to fundraising?

  5. Yeah!! Thank you so much for posting this article!!! Roybal PE staff especially thanks you for your attention to our wonderful kids!

  6. What an awesome event and congrats to all involved in getting this fantastic idea off the ground! I second the motion from @sq. would love to help drum up public support.

  7. The coach was Art Frescas special education

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