A master team player, Nuggets’ Jamal Murray supports middle school basketball program that pairs kids with and without disabilities

Unified Sports is a program in the Aurora Public Schools that allows students with intellectual and physical disabilities to play side-by-side with classmates. A surprise visit from a Nuggets superhero electrified students at Aurora's North Middle School.
April 3, 2024
Star Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray made a surprise visit to Aurora's North Middle School where he helped coach and donated $5,000 to support Unified Sports, a program that pairs students with and without disabilities. Photos by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Star Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray made a surprise visit to Aurora’s North Middle School where he helped coach and donated $5,000 to support Unified Sports, a program that pairs students with and without disabilities. Photos by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

Denver Nuggets superstar Jamal Murray has relished great partnerships on the basketball court.

Thanks to masterful passing and shooting, Murray and his teammates clinched Denver’s first-ever NBA Championship in 2023.

As the Nuggets vie for another championship this year, Murray recently took time to visit North Middle School in Aurora where the basketball star celebrated younger athletes who also make the most of meaningful sports partnerships.

Jamal Murray interviewed students at North Middle School and shared his secrets to success, including working closely with his teammates. Photos by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Jamal Murray interviewed students at North Middle School and shared his secrets to success, including working closely with his teammates. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

Cheers erupted in the school’s gym on March 26 as Murray made a surprise visit and stepped up to help coach a middle school basketball game that’s part of a unique program called Unified Sports.

Unified games pair students with and without intellectual and physical disabilities.

Students celebrated during a game at North Middle School in Aurora. The players are part of Unified Sports, a program that allows kids with disabilities to play side-by-side with typical students. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Students celebrated during a game at North Middle School in Aurora. The players are part of Unified Sports, a program that allows kids with disabilities to play side-by-side with typical students. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

Unique Unified Sports program fosters teamwork and relationships for students with and without disabilities

Duos from North and Aurora Hills Middle School faced off and displayed far more than basketball skills during an afternoon game.

A visually-impaired player stuck close to his partner, who guided him from one end of the court to the other, where the student felt his way to a special lower basketball hoop and got to experience the joys of a dunk.

Some players who are on the autism spectrum wore headphones to block out loud sounds but loved working on their dribbling skills. Other students simply skipped across the court or hugged the basketball to their bellies and sprinted toward the basket, fighting off defenders. Yes, there was a ref at the game. But the man in black and white kept his whistle quiet for the most part and overlooked a lot of traveling calls, delighting both players and fans alike.

Felipe Avalos, left, has Down syndrome. He danced for the crowd and loved chasing down an opponent during a Unified basketball game at Aurora's North Middle School. The program allows all students to enjoy sports, regardless of their disabilities. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Felipe Avalos, left, has Down syndrome. He danced for the crowd and loved chasing down an opponent during a Unified basketball game at Aurora’s North Middle School. The program allows all students to enjoy sports, regardless of their disabilities. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

As hundreds of students in the bleachers cheered, the duos of typical and disabled students showed off kindness, sensitivity, teamwork and even some dance moves.

Felipe Avalos, 14, has Down syndrome. He teamed up with his brother, Jonathan Avalos, 13, who usually plays more soccer than hoops. Before the game started, Felipe strutted onto the court and wowed the fans with his breakdancing skills, including a stylish back bend. He later scored some baskets, prompting Murray to share his top coaching tip:

“Give the ball to Felipe, and get out of the way,” Murray said with a huge grin.

Students play basketball at North Middle School in Aurora. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

“It’s a lot of fun anytime I get to play basketball and put smiles on kids’ faces,” said Murray, who high-fived all the players and together with Nuggets mascot, Rocky, made his way around the entire gym to greet students who pulled out their phones to capture shots of their basketball superhero.

Rocky, the Denver Nuggets Mascot, was a big hit as he high-fived with players at North Middle School in Aurora. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Rocky, the Denver Nuggets Mascot, was a big hit as he high-fived with players at North Middle School in Aurora. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

“I want to help as best as I can and want to see what’s best for the kids and to help inspire them,” Murray said. “That’s my main thing. Hopefully, they see me do that, and one day, when they get older, they’ll recognize the importance of it and do it as well.”

Photos by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Photos by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

Murray was so impressed with the Unified game that he spontaneously decided to match a UCHealth donation of $5,000 with a $5,000 gift of his own. Aurora Public Schools plans to use the $10,000 from Murray and UCHealth to support Unified teams and purchase sports equipment. Along with basketball, the program pairs athletic duos who compete in track and field, soccer and bowling.

The Unified motto is this: “Playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.”

Jamal Murray high-fived players after a Unified Sports basketball game at North Middle School in Aurora. Murray also decided after the game to match UCHealth's donation of $5,000 to Unified Sports. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Jamal Murray high-fived players after a Unified Sports basketball game at North Middle School in Aurora. Murray also decided after the game to match UCHealth’s donation of $5,000 to Unified Sports. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

New partnership flourishing between UCHealth and Aurora Public Schools

The Anschutz Medical Campus, which is home to UCHeath University of Colorado Hospital, is located just blocks from North Middle School, and UCHealth is thrilled to be expanding its partnerships with Aurora schools.

Allison Parada grinned as she played basketball. Parada, who has Down syndrome, was so thrilled after she scored a basket that she ran off the court and high-fived and hugged her parents. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.
Allison Parada grinned as she played basketball. Parada, who has Down syndrome, was so thrilled after she scored a basket that she ran off the court and high-fived and hugged her parents. Photo by Justin Tafoya, Clarkson Creative LLC.

David Mafe, UCHealth’s chief diversity officer and vice president of human resources for UCHealth’s Denver metro region, was on hand for the Unified game and presented a ceremonial $5,000 check after the game. He said the partnerships he witnessed on the basketball court reminded him a lot of teamwork he sees every day in health care.

“It was great that Jamal Murray could be here. We saw a bunch of people who came together with different abilities,” Mafe told the crowd. “We’re excited to develop our relationship with Aurora Public Schools.”

Support for Unified teams are just the beginning of a flourishing partnership with the health care system and the school district, Mafe said.

“We’re building learning opportunities so students can understand what life looks like in a health care setting,” Mafe said.

Many Aurora students would love to follow Murray into the NBA, of course. But others might achieve their dreams through careers as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and more.

“We’re hoping to develop a health care curriculum with Aurora Public Schools so we’ll have a pipeline of workers who are ready to go,” Mafe said.

A basket then a hug for her dad

Along with Felipe, other students dazzled the crowd.

Brianna Gomez, a 13-year-old with Down syndrome, fearlessly guarded kids who were two feet taller than she is.

And Allison Parada, an 11-year-old 6th grader, became a fan favorite when she scored a basket on her third attempt then raced over during the game to hug her dad on the sidelines.

Allison’s dad, Victor Parada, had come to watch the game along with his wife and Allison’s older sister.

Victor’s eyes welled with tears as he watched his daughter play, and both he and Allison sported huge grins.

“She’s a special girl. She has Down syndrome. I’m very proud of her,” Victor said. “Every team she’s been on, she just loves.”

Murray’s visit to Allison’s school was a huge win on top of a winning sports program that welcomes all kids.

Said Victor: “We follow the Nuggets. We love them.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.