Unified basketball a joyful affair

BAR HARBOR — Watching from the sidelines in the Mount Desert Island High School gym Monday, Sean Geagan rested back in his chair as he watched a group of basketball players go up and down the court. Whether those players were wearing purple and gold, or green and white, he offered support with every word.

Geagan, the head coach of the Bucksport unified basketball team, watched as the ball reached MDI’s Spencer Rose, who made a 3-point shot as the entire gymnasium jumped to its feet.

“Good job!” Geagan shouted to Rose as he clapped his hands and rose to his feet. “That was a great shot.”

Under normal circumstances, cheering for an opposing player at a sporting event might seem out of place. In unified basketball, though, there’s rarely a fan, coach or assistant who isn’t doing so regardless of who wins or loses or how many points a player scores.

Monday’s game between MDI and Bucksport marked the first of the 2018 unified basketball season for both teams. As is the case every time a unified basketball game is played, the positive atmosphere in the gym made everybody a winner before the game even began.

Unified basketball is an adapted version of the game suited for high school students with developmental disabilities. MDI was the first Hancock County high school to offer the sport in 2016, and Bucksport and Ellsworth joined the following year.

The sport partners special education students [athletes] with regular education students [partners] and uses rules slightly different from the traditional version of the sport. At least three athletes must be on the court at all times, and the partners may score no more than 25 percent of their team’s points.

Scores, records and some statistics are kept for games, but that’s not why players, assistants and fans show up for them. Instead of a game constrained by tightly enforced rules, coaches, assistants and even officials help players enjoy the game by whatever means necessary whether they’re on the court or on the sidelines.

“It’s so much fun to be here for this,” said sophomore David Gross, a partner on the Bucksport team. “The kids love it, and it’s a great experience for everybody who comes.”

Across the state, everyone is coming to that realization. Between new programs offering unified basketball and schools forming partnerships, what started out as a grassroots effort in 2015 has now expanded to include 52 teams.

In varsity basketball, teams such as MDI and Bucksport don’t play one another because of class-size differences. Yet in unified basketball, where the chance to play is more important than the final score, those differences don’t matter.

“It’s really special to watch,” said Sally Merchant, an educational technology specialist at MDI who works with special-needs students. “You have to see it to truly understand what it means.”

As the game drew to a close, Geagan, Gross and MDI Head Coach Matt Umphrey high-fived players from both teams after baskets, and the referees allowed numerous substitutions to make sure everyone had an equal amount of time on the floor.

The postgame scenes following Bucksport’s 71-51 win resembled most: team photos, both teams supporting one another, and everyone in the gym giving players congratulatory messages.

“It’s about making sure everyone plays and enjoys it,” Merchant said. “Everyone gets a chance, and that’s what matters the most.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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