At the beginning of last year’s inaugural high school unified basketball season, Zach Ewing, then a junior at Hampden Academy, set his hopes high: “Our goal is to get a gold ball and win the championship.”
Indeed, three months later, Hampden Academy won the championship game with a last-second shot in overtime. The biggest achievement, however, was the athletes’ participation in a new effort to expand high school sports to students who are often overlooked by their classmates.
Maine’s second season of unified basketball began last week. The number of participating schools doubled this year, to 34, highlighting the sport’s success and appeal.
The idea behind unified sports teams is simple: Give all students an opportunity to participate in athletics. Through a partnership between Special Olympics Maine and the Maine Principals Association, which oversees high school sports, the first unified high school basketball teams started playing last year. Special Olympics provides small grants to schools, up to $3,000, to help pay for transportation, uniforms and other costs.
Unified teams are made up of student athletes with developmental disabilities and partners without disabilities. No more than two partners can be on the court for a team at one time, and they can score no more than 25 percent of a team’s points. The teams are co-ed.
“This experience has been life-changing,” Hampden senior Will Huston, a partner player, said after the championship game last March. “When I walk down the halls, I won’t say I judged kids before, but it makes me more aware of everything that’s going on.”
“Seeing and meeting some of the kids on the team that I never thought I’d be friends with or have things in common with, we just click,” he added.
The MPA recently heard from the mother of a student at Oceanside High School in Rockland who is a partner for that school’s team. He now volunteers in a special education classroom and plans to focus on special education in college.
“We knew it was a wonderful opportunity, but we couldn’t have imagined how successful it would be,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the MPA.
The mission of unified sports is to break down barriers and have all athletes work together — on the court, at school and elsewhere, said Ian Frank of Special Olympics Maine. Unified sports have been around for a long time, but on a limited scale. Special Olympics, for example, has held one-day basketball tournaments for years.
Partnering with the MPA to integrate unified basketball into the state’s high schools gives athletes with disabilities more opportunities to play — and to play with and in front of their high school peers. Beginning with Oceanside, schools are creating unified cheering squads to rev up the crowds and cheer the on-court action.
The MPA hopes to add new unified team sports, including volleyball, tennis and soccer.
“The support has been fantastic,” said Josh Ewing, Zach’s dad. “It has been the best thing ever, without a doubt.”
His son has been involved with Special Olympics for a decade, but unified basketball has been completely different, said Ewing, the Orono police chief. Three Hampden partners who graduated last year came to the team’s first game this season to cheer them on. The gym was packed and the band and cheerleaders added to the excitement.
One mother remarked to Ewing at a game that she had never seen the helpful, instructive side of her teenage son before the team was formed.
“It opens up more people to a level of acceptance and understanding,” Ewing said.
Winning championships is exciting. The acceptance and understanding are the larger victories.