Sydney Newcomb points to her brother, Aaron Newcomb, on the sideline after scoring in the Brewer Unified game against Orono Unified on Thursday evening at Brewer High School. Sydney’s brother is a student assistant coach for the Brewer Unified team.

When Brewer High School senior Sydney Newcomb swished her first basket during a season-opening Unified basketball game Wednesday, she may not have been the happiest player in the gym.

Younger brother Aaron was more than excited to share in that moment of sporting success from the Witches’ bench.

“It’s really cool seeing her out there,” said Aaron, a sophomore guard on Brewer’s boys varsity team and a volunteer coach for the school’s Unified basketball program.

“I’m on the court and now she’s on the court, and I get to teach her what I know from what I’ve learned about basketball.”

Unified basketball matches players with intellectual disabilities (Unified athletes) with non-varsity players (Unified partners), with rule modifications made to define player roles and prevent the Unified partners from dominating the game.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Sixty-one teams representing 67 high schools from around the state are participating in Unified basketball this winter. It is the sixth season of a collaboration between the Maine Principals’ Association and Special Olympics Maine that not only promotes physical fitness, but also a spirit of inclusion within each school.

“You see it in the cafeteria and the hallways,” Brewer athletic administrator Dave Utterback said. “Calvin [Etchason-Taylor] put 24 points in during this game, and he’ll get high-fives all day tomorrow during school. People will go up to Julianna [Briggs] and tell her ‘good job’ in the game today.

“These kids are known by their first names in school in situations where they might not have been known before, and it’s real rewarding to see those connections being made.”

Basketball has always been a big part of family life for the Newcombs. Aaron’s dad (also named Aaron) played at Hermon High School, and older brother Brendan starred at Brewer and later scored 1,000 points at Maine Maritime Academy.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Now the Unified version of the sport has created a unique bond for Aaron and Sydney.

“Watching my dad’s highlights through high school, and then seeing Brendan going through college after high school and me playing high school and Sydney getting to play now, too, it’s so cool,” Aaron said.

“We’re a basketball family. We love basketball, and Sydney’s been around basketball for as long as I know. It’s really awesome.”

Sydney was introduced to Unified sports through cheering for other Brewer teams but for the last two years has done double duty by bringing her own game to the basketball court.

“I’ve been playing a long time. I like hanging out with my friends. I get to see [Aaron] every day, and we get to hang out every day,” she said. “I like cheering because we get to cheer on my brothers and his friends.

“They might make it to the tournament, and all of us cheerleaders are going down to cheer them on.”

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Aaron, whose team is 10-6 and indeed tournament-bound in Class A North, has seen steady improvement in his sister’s play. She scored some baskets Wednesday during the Witches’ 73-66 loss to Orono before a sizable crowd at the Brewer High gym.

“Her form last year to this year is just completely different,” he said. “She’s starting to understand the basics of the game a lot more now. Her game has changed a lot.”

While Aaron helps instruct the entire Brewer team, time spent at home with Sydney allows for some bonus coaching, including on game day.

“I just talked to her about following through with backspin on the ball when she’s shooting and making sure to get back on defense and to stay between her man and the basket, just the basics,” Aaron said. “We talk all the time.”

Sydney says she’s receptive to her brother’s suggestions.

“We work together,” she said. “He has taught me a lot about basketball, defense and stuff.”

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

The MPA this season opted to suspend its practice of awarding a state championship in Unified basketball for two years while organizers seek to determine the appropriate competitive level for the sport.

Instead, Unified basketball festivals, which have steadily grown more popular around the state in recent years, will mark the end of the season in mid-March.

That’s just fine, according to the Newcombs.

“Just seeing these kids grow and learn as the weeks go by and as we get some practices in, and meeting Sydney’s friends from school and just really getting to know the kids around school, that’s the big thing,” Aaron said.

“It brings everybody together and really makes a better community for the school. It’s an awesome atmosphere.”

Sydney already is looking forward to her team’s next game at Ellsworth on Thursday.

“It’s good,” she said of the Witches’ first Unified road trip of the season. “They feed us, and we get to play against different teams.”

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...