After nearly two years in development, the Maine Principals’ Association and Special Olympics Maine are bringing unified basketball to the state’s high school sport scene.

The unified sport – which has been available in New England states such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island for several years – partners special education students (athletes) with regular education students (partners) and uses rules slightly different than the traditional version of the sport.

“You’re seeing unified sports across the country becoming popular. It makes sense for us to have a program here in Maine,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the MPA. “Through contacts through the Special Olympics Maine folks we set up a meeting and started the conversation and here we are.”

The journey to making unified basketball a sanctioned MPA sport in Maine has been long. According to Burnham, he and Special Olympics Maine representative Ian Frank met with members of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association in spring 2013 to discuss how it launched its program.

Jeffrey Collins is new to his position as executive director of the New Hampshire association but was involved with the process three years ago in its initial stages – which offers unified volleyball, soccer, track and field, and basketball – when he was the principal of Portsmouth High School.

“It’s something we’ve had in place for a couple years and it’s a fantastic way to get more kids involved, representing their schools,” Collins said. “It’s been a wonderful thing.”

Following their talks with the New Hampshire association, Burnham and Frank formed a committee that included Leavitt Principal Eben Shaw, Lisbon teacher Jody Benson and athletic directors Jeff Ramich (Brunswick), Mike Bisson (Hampden) and Dave Shapiro (Greely).

Committee members also contacted the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, which has offered unified volleyball since 2010 and unified basketball since 2011.

MAKING PLANS A REALITY

After nearly two years of planning, the MPA and Special Olympics Maine are ready to turn plans into reality. Recently, 17 schools had expressed an interest in joining for the first season.

Local school officials are figuring out the logistics of making it work at their schools.

“We’re still trying to wrap our head around it,” Oak Hill Athletic Director Jim Palmer said.

Unified basketball is just like any sport in that it brings certain hurdles to the table. Money is one of the biggest challenges in high school athletics. Special Olympics Maine has stepped up to offset those costs for programs willing participate this season.

“Special Olympics Maine is offering $3,000 to each high school to join the Maine Principals’ Association unified basketball league,” Frank said.

Will it be there tomorrow?

Frank thinks so, although he did note since the money comes from an annual grant from the Department of Education and Special Olympics Inc. that nothing is guaranteed.

In Rhode Island, a similar offer was made from the state’s Special Olympics affiliate to the interscholastic league for six start-up teams in the program’s first year.

Chris Cobain is the athletic director at East Greenwich High School in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and was in the same position in 2010 that 17 athletics director in Maine are in now.

Funds were still available for the program in the second year, but each school was asked to pick up part of the tab the following year.

“I said, ‘I don’t (care),'” Cobain said. “You can’t put a price tag on it. I’ll cut a regular program before I cut unified if it becomes a financial issue.”

Cobain faced the same questions many athletic directors in Maine are addressing. How do I find enough gym time? What if no one comes out for the team? How do I get partners to sign up? Can I afford to pay for even more buses?

The results far outweighed those questions, Cobain said.

NOT ENTIRELY NEW

Unified basketball may be new as an MPA-sanctioned sport but it is not new to Maine.

Over the past few years Special Olympics Maine has held one-day tournaments at the University of Southern Maine and this past spring Oak Hill junior Dalton Therrien — the starting quarterback on the recently crowned Class D champion football team — participated as a partner on a team representing the school.

“To see the kids go out and play their hearts out for something that they don’t necessarily get to do is great because they’re having so much fun,” Therrien said. “It just puts a smile on your face to see them play.”

The competition level in these contests is not quite at the level of varsity basketball, but it’s far from noncompetitive.

“It was kind of high paced,” Oak Hill junior Sam Guilford said. “There were some teams that were awesome, like hardcore, and there were others that were, eh, good but they just needed to improve here and there and all that – but it was fun.”

Of course, not everyone shares the same attitude as Therrien. Education has emphasized inclusion in the classroom for over a decade but there will always be some students that assume having special needs is the same as lacking intelligence.

“It stinks to say, but at the high school level it happens a lot because some people just don’t take the time to really get to know who they are,” Therrien said.

The addition of unified basketball should only reinforce what teachers and students have worked toward in the classroom of a singular student body.

“You find victories here and there in little things and now they have a larger piece to go for too,” said Winthrop Athletic Director Joel Stoneton, who spent 20 years in special education before taking over the AD job.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island have seen significant growth since starting programs. Burnham and Frank are hoping the sport follows a similar trend in Maine.

“The next step once we get through basketball is we’re going to look at other sports,” Burnham said. “What we’d like to do is have some sort of a unified offering in the fall as well as something in the spring.”