PORTLAND — History was made on a rainy afternoon in the Deering High School gym last week, when a new kind of basketball team took the court for the first time.
The city’s first Unified basketball team, a partnership between Deering and Portland high schools, combines students who have developmental disabilities with non-varsity student partners without disabilities.
The coed team played its first home game Feb. 3 against a team from Bonny Eagle.
Melanie Craig, Deering athletic director, said Unified basketball is a Maine Principals Association sport. Last year was the first year for the sport, with 16 teams across the state. This year there are 32 teams.
Portland’s team has five identified athletes from each school, and four non-varsity student partners. The team has two coaches, an assistant coach and a student coach.
“We incorporate as many kids as we can in as many roles as we can,” Craig said.
Craig said they also added Unified cheerleaders, who follow the same guidelines as the basketball team in terms of athletes and partners.
The team will play eight, 32-minute games over the course of the season, with the opportunity to earn Heal points and advance to playoffs.
Student partners are only allowed to score 25 percent of the total points, but Craig said most often the identified student athletes do all the scoring. The partners, and referees too, are mostly there to ensure all the athletes get involved.
Craig said the program has been a great way to foster involvement. The Deering boys varsity basketball team came to see the first home game, along with several students and school faculty.
“What we’ve found is it’s a whole community (getting) involved,” Craig said.
Joe Pelletier, a sophomore at Deering, said he was approached by Craig to volunteer after he decided not to play basketball this year. And he said the result has been great.
“I think these kids sometimes get neglected,” Pelletier said shortly after checking out of the game. He added it was a good for the students off the court, too, because it helps get them more included in school during regular hours.
“It gives you a good feeling to see these kids playing,” Pelletier said.
Malakai Green, one of the athletes, said he enjoys the program because it gets everyone playing the game. He said everyone was having a good time together, and they were learning important lessons, like how to cooperate and how to remain positive.
“I’m glad to be here,” Green said during the second quarter of the Bonny Eagle game.
Unified basketball is a result of a partnership between the MPA, Special Olympics Maine and Project Unify, which is a Special Olympics program that works to promote and increase education and leadership opportunities for students with disabilities.
Miles Bisher, an assistant coach and parent liaison for the team, said the program is “good for inclusivity,” and is a way to bring the two high schools together. He said it has also been a way for the students to be involved with the school.
“Every school should drive to be inclusive,” Bisher said.
The team’s next game is against Brunswick on Wednesday, Feb. 10, at the Portland Expo at 3:30 p.m. There are also upcoming home games against Greely on Feb. 17 at the Expo at 3:30 p.m., and against Massabesic on Feb. 24 at 3:30 p.m. at Deering High School.