When Nathan Murray’s shot smacked the backboard and fell through the net for Portland/Deering in a Unified Basketball playoff game Wednesday against Bonny Eagle, spectators in the stands went wild.
Their cheers rang through the Deering High gymnasium, triggering a grin on Murray’s face that didn’t fade for five minutes.
“Moments like that when a player – who can usually only make a layup – throws a deep shot in …” Portland/Deering Coach Chris Hazelton shook his head, smiling. “It’s all about them in that moment.”
From the bench, Murray – nicknamed “Nitro” – re-enacted his shot, flicking his wrist, seemingly unfazed by Portland/Deering’s dwindling lead. With less than a minute left, Colbe Lewis drove for a layup to pull Bonny Eagle up for good. The Scots won 43-42 to reach the regional semifinals Friday.
Unified basketball is a co-ed sport co-sponsored by Special Olympics and the Maine Principals’ Association. Teams combine athletes (high school students with developmental disabilities) and partners (students without disabilities) who help sustain the flow of the game. Three athletes and two partners are on the court for each team.
After the game, Bonny Eagle Coach Paula Petterson wiped away tears. The victory was especially emotional given Portland/Deering (8-1) handed the Scots (8-1) their only loss of the season.
“They’ve been working up to this game,” Petterson said. “I’m trying to let them know they did it. They’re amazing.”
It’s no wonder the sport is growing rapidly across the state. In its third year in Maine, the number of teams has increased to 46 from 32 in 2016 and 17 in 2015 – the league’s first season. In all, 52 schools take part – with six teams, including Portland/Deering, participating as a co-op.
“It’s a great social and athletic thing,” Hazelton said. “A lot of our players haven’t been able to represent their school.”
That pride was palpable Wednesday. After scoring the winning basket, Lewis kissed his fingers and pointed toward the ceiling. He has been the team’s leading scorer all season but is quick to spread the credit.
“We all work as a team to get W’s,” Lewis said. “We get the chance to bring home the Gold Ball back to Bonny Eagle.”
Lewis’ mom, Val Sproul, stood beside him, beaming. “I love watching him play,” she said. “He has such a love for sports and it’s made his self-esteem go up.”
Before tipoff, players were introduced. Bonny Eagle senior Lucas Bonica twirled onto the court, high-fiving his teammates. When he made a basket late in the second half, his arms shot up like a gymnast who had just stuck a landing.
Bonica didn’t hesitate when asked his favorite part of playing basketball. “The way I shoot those hoops,” he said.
The sport also allows players to make new friends. Catherine Marean, a Bonny Eagle guard clad in Captain America-patterned high socks, joked with her teammates before taking on a more serious tone.
“I love this team,” she said. “I sometimes say that we’re more than a team – we’re like a family.”
Joe Pelletier, a partner for Portland/Deering, feels similarly for his teammates. The Deering High junior said he fell in love with the sport two years ago when he joined. During games he tries to distribute the ball, giving each player a chance to score. And when an opponent squares up for a shot, Pelletier relents on defense and hopes it goes in.
“When that happens, all of your competitiveness goes right out of you,” he said. “You’re just so happy for them.”
But at times those moments can result in heartbreak. At the sound of the final buzzer, two Portland/Deering players collapsed to the floor, devastated by the last-minute loss. But Pelletier was there for them. He stuck around after the game to shoot baskets with several kids.
One of those players included William “Dr. J” John. On the court, John aggressively attacked the basket and used his long arms to pull down rebounds. But off of it he was shy. “How fun was this season – did you think it was fun?” Pelletier asked John, who backed away slowly, nodding with a coy smile.
“I usually just try and give them a hug, shake their hand – just tell them everything is going to be all right,” Pelletier said. “I’m really good friends with most of the kids now.”
While Portland/Deering’s season is over, the relationships are not. Pelletier said he loves running into teammates in the hallways at school and giving a hug.
“I’m just so happy to see them,” he said. “More people should get involved. This is a great way to connect with the kids.”
Taylor Vortherms can be contacted at 791-6417 or