The pep band belted out the school song. Cheerleaders fired up the crowd from their space behind the end line. The large student section chanted away. Parents were scattered throughout the stands cheering on their young offspring.
Such was the scene this past Tuesday afternoon at Hampden Academy. It is a spectacle that takes place in countless gyms throughout the state during the winter. Tuesday had a bit of a different feel, however. There were no Heal Points to be gained on this day or gold balls to be won. The officials were never the subject of jeering from the crowd. The partisan Hampden fans cheered outstanding plays from the opposition as well as their own. When the visiting Oceanside Mariners edged the home-standing Broncos 34-33, both teams left with smiles on their faces
Welcome to unified basketball. What is unified basketball, you may ask? Unified basketball and unified sports in general combine athletes with disabilities as well as those without disabilities, competing on the same team.
If you are reading this and are over, say, the age of 45, you may recall attending school when students with disabilities were off in their own area of the building. Beginning with the late 70’s and moving forward, more youngsters identified as having special needs have been mainstreamed into “regular” school classrooms. Athletics, however, have been slow to catch up until now.
According to a November 25th article in the Portland Press Herald, some schools have participated in unified athletics informally in recent years. This year is a breakthrough of sorts as Special Olympics of Maine and the Maine Principals Association have joined efforts to make unified basketball an MPA sanctioned sport. This marks the first year Hampden Academy has offered unified basketball and joins sixteen other schools around the state in doing so.
The unified games follow the same rules as a regular high school basketball game with a few exceptions. During game action the line-up on the floor consists of three unified athletes (players with disabilities) and two unified partners (those without disabilities). According to Hampden’s coach, Andrea Lee, seventy-five percent of scoring is to be accomplished, in theory, by unified athletes. Teams are not allowed to press. The game will sometimes be stopped mid-stream to allow for substitutes. The contests typically go quickly as the squads play four eight-minute running time periods with a ten-minute break for halftime. The game officials typically allow much more leeway in terms of travelling, double dribbles, etc.
Hampden’s team plays four regular season games followed by a tournament on March 11th at the University of Maine. They will conclude their season on April 4th at a tournament in Gorham. The team typically practices once to twice a week for an hour fifteen minutes.
In their first foray into unified basketball, Lee didn’t know what to expect. She wasn’t sure if people would show up and how they would react. She remarked how fantastic and enthusiastic the crowd was.
Coach Lee also serves the SAD 22 school district as a physical education/adaptive P.E. teacher at Reeds Brook Middle School. She is also the Special Olympics head coach for the entire district. Despite the playing time regulations she is quick to point out this is one team. The goal of unified is not to divide those with disabilities and those without but to bring everyone together for one purpose.
Speaking of unification, Lee treats all players the same and holds each team member accountable to standards of sportsmanship, responsibility, and respect. The players gain life lessons that anyone on any team should come away with. This was the reason athletics were put into the school curriculum in the first place. According to Coach Lee, they also learn teamwork and compassion. All involved gain additional pride in their school, a sense of friendship, and tolerance for others. The partners, in particular, gain a great feeling in being able to help others.
Talking with some of the Hampden players after the game, it is clear the experience has been life-changing for all. Isaiah Palmer, who was the game’s high scorer with 21 points, said this was his first time being a part of a team. He also enjoys chess. He now has something new to talk about and additional experiences to share with others. He commented about how awesome it was to play in front of the crowd. The things he has taken away most from his experience are having made new friends and the sense of confidence he has gained.
Robbie Martin also chimed in saying he has enjoyed hanging out with his new friends. Normally, he would just hang out at home playing his Call of Duty video game but really enjoys playing basketball.
Dakota Clement said on Monday he was having a bad day. That all went away when he went to practice. Just seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces made all the bad stuff just go away.
Senior Noah Parker stated the team is becoming very cohesive. He said “once you start playing with this team it is hard to tell who the athletes are and who are the partners”. Parker, who also plays soccer and tennis, has worked with Special Olympics, but this is a first for him. Outside of team practices and games, the players will go to social events together, such as going out to eat. He said that everyone is great to work with and he tries to lead to instill passion in everyone.
One of the most important aspects Parker mentioned is how the team has brought the school together. This unified basketball team has literally changed the culture of the entire school. How many other athletic teams can make that claim? In speaking further with Coach Lee she shared with me a conversation she had with athletic administrator, Mike Bisson. He expressed how he observed at lunch a young man with disabilities sitting at the same table with another student and his girlfriend. It was a friendship which may not have been formed if not for the team.
For other schools considering offering unified sports, let Hampden be a shining example of how people coming together in the arena of athletics can change a school’s climate. No price can be put on that. Here’s hoping other area schools follow suit and include unified in their sports offerings.
The Broncos did bounce back from their defeat Tuesday to win on the road at Messalonskee on Thursday. Hampden returns home this Wednesday at 5:00 to face the Cony Rams. Come out and cheer on both teams. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.