If you think the high school basketball season ended with the recent tournament, guess again.
That’s because unified basketball has come to Forecaster Country and has earned instant popularity.
A visit to Yarmouth High School last week illustrated why.
There was ample excitement in the gym and it had little to do with the six lead changes between the Clippers and visiting Edward Little, Yarmouth’s 10-0 tide-turning run in the third period or the game coming down to the final horn before the home team prevailed, 43-41.
What ultimately made this game (and this sport) stand out was the true purity of competition and the presence of something often missing from cut-throat varsity sports:
Joy to be playing the game, joy to be on floor with teammates of all abilities and most of all, joy over making a basket, the type of joy that brings the house down when a player who rarely scores tickles the twine.
In unified basketball, like varsity basketball, games are 32 minutes, but it’s running time. Other differences are that teams may have no more than 15 players and there must be at least three “athletes,” or student-athletes with developmental disabilities, on the floor at all times. The athletes must score at least 75 percent of the points. They’re joined by “partners,” who are student-athletes without developmental disabilities. Partners can’t be varsity athletes in that particular sports season.
While unified basketball is a new Maine Principals’ Association-sanctioned sport this winter, it has been around for awhile.
“(Unified basketball has) been embraced across the entire country,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham. “Connecticut has had it for several years. New Hampshire and Rhode Island have added it. It’s been in (Maine) for six years, sponsored by Special Olympics. Teams would come together for one-day tournaments at U. Maine and USM. We started a conversation last year with Ian Frank (the Project Unity Director at Special Olympics) and last fall, Ian, (MPA assistant executive director) Gerry Durgin and I met with folks from New Hampshire. That was very helpful. We formed a committee and talked to schools interested in starting programs.”
In Forecaster Country, Greely and Yarmouth both launched programs this winter and both have been thrilled with the results.
“I had no idea how it would play out, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive in every aspect,” said Greely athletic administrator David Shapiro, who is also on the MPA’s unified basketball committee. “It’s great for the community. From the athletes’ and the partners’ perspective, it’s everything you want from sports. They work together, they pull for each other. It’s inclusive on every front, just like varsity sports. You’ll see players part like the Red Sea so someone can take a shot and if it goes in, the crowd erupts, but it’s still competitive.”
“It’s been probably the highlight of my year so far in the sense unified basketball is sports at its purest form,” said Yarmouth athletic administrator Susan Robbins. “The kids take nothing for granted. They have nothing but fun all the time. It’s competitive and people want to win, but throughout the game, opportunities are created for kids to score. It makes me scratch my head and ask, ‘Why haven’t we doing this longer?'”
In total, 17 teams took part this winter, playing between four and eight games.
The stories that have resulted have produced smiles and tears of happiness.
“It’s refreshing to see the true meaning of athletics,” Burnham said. “It’s been a tremendous success. I’ve heard 17 of the neatest stories. (Class A boys’ basketball state champion) Hampden Academy’s had a huge student section, led by varsity athletes. Oceanside has special ed cheerleaders on the cheering team.”
At Yarmouth, coach Christina Strong and members of the girls’ varsity basketball team were part of the crowd for the Clippers’ finale, the thrilling win over Edward Little. While the athletes and partners work together, so too do the teams at times to allow select players multiple shots at getting in the scoring column.
With that said, however, the athletes want to win and in the finale, Yarmouth managed to do so, wrapping up its regular season with a 4-2 record.
“It’s been great to bring in kids with special needs to do a team sport and feel like they’re king of the world,” said Clippers head coach Ashley Marden. “They love it. They’re competitive. They play defense and they want to shoot. Seeing the partners be selfless is awesome. I’ve been very surprised with the quality of play, how much better they’ve gotten.”
Yarmouth assistant coach Jen Laberge, who has spent many years in special education and coaching, echoed the sentiment.
“Special ed is near and dear to our hearts,” Laberge said. ” I’ve coached basketball for 10 years and this is one of the most fun seasons I’ve ever had. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for kids with moderate to severe disabilities to play team sports in their school. To create an organization and a season for them is huge. They get to be a part of their school community in a way they never have. They’ve watched their siblings and friends for years and now they get to be the ones on the court hearing the cheers. Some of the kids really know basketball. They know the game. It’s pretty cool.”
Robbins said that starting a program was surprisingly easy.
“When I heard about it in August, I knew I had to make it happen somehow,” she said. “Special Olympics gives schools a $3,000 grant, which helps jump-start the program. It was a no-brainer to find a way to incorporate students into the student body. It’s a feel-good thing. It’s another way to be proud of our community and show school pride.”
Over at Greely (which went 1-5 in the regular season), Shapiro said that some of the school’s best known varsity athletes have been a part of unified basketball and that it’s been a win-win situation for all involved.
“I’m especially happy that we had overwhelming response when we were seeking partners,” he said. “Kids gravitate to someone like (junior) Izzy (Hutnak). She’s a fierce competitor on the soccer field, but I’ve seen a different side of her with unified basketball. The entire (Class B champion) girls’ basketball team was at our last game. We had girls volunteering to coach and running the clock.”
Shapiro said that the feedback he’s received has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve had a parent tell me their child had more physical activity and social interaction in the past two months than they’ve had in two years,” he said. “We’ve had a couple hundred people in the stands for games.”
Like varsity basketball, Heal Points are tabulated and a championship tournament is underway, one that will be capped by the presentation of a Gold Ball and the naming of Sportsmanship Award winners March 19 in Lewiston.
Yarmouth is the No. 3 seed in the West and will host No. 6 Poland in the quarterfinals.
Greely, ranked seventh, visits No. 2 Lisbon in the quarterfinals.
“I’ve had a lot of kids ask about a fan bus for our playoff game,” Shapiro said.
Rest assured that other schools will want to get in on the fun going forward. There will be some tweaks heading into year two, but it won’t be long until unified basketball has a foothold in most communities.
“We hope it continues to grow and the opportunity becomes state-wide,” Burnham said. “We’ll invite coaches and ADs and talk about what needs to be changed and modified.”
“Now that we have it and the more people know about it, I expect our numbers to rise,” Robbins said. “We’ve tried to get all the kids in our special ed program involved. I think there will be more schools who take it on.”
“I see it getting bigger and bigger across the state,” Marden added. “I bet at some point, there will be JV and varsity teams.”
Yarmouth senior Tom Morton, who has shown an ability to light it up from the outside, launches a shot during last week’s 43-41 win over Edward Little.
Greely junior Izzy Hutnak (4) hugs classmate Connor Hines after Hines makes a basket during a recent unified basketball game. Hutnak, a girls’ soccer standout, is classified as a “partner” and Hines an “athlete” for the new MPA-sanctioned sport which has become a huge hit.