February 26, 2010

A slam dunk success story


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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Wed. 01/27/2010. The Gould Bears team includes George Hopkins, Nick Aldrich and Manny Grimmick as the Gould School hosts Pine Tree Academy boys basketball at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Wed. 01/27/2010. The Gould Bears warm up before the Gould School hosts Pine Tree Academy boys basketball at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

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Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Gedeon Semuhoza gathered in the defensive rebound, turned and saw George Hopkins streaking across midcourt. Without hesitating, Semuhoza cocked his right arm and heaved the basketball to his unguarded teammate for what should have been an easy two points.

Hopkins had other ideas.

Eschewing the uncontested layup, Hopkins drove to the right side of the basket, laid the ball softly against the backboard, then ducked out of the way as teammate Ian Nono leaped high, grabbed the perfect alley-oop pass and slammed it through the rim.

The Long Creek Youth Development Center's gymnasium exploded with noise.

''Everyone, even the other team's parents, were standing up,'' said Hopkins, a 16-year-old from Lewiston. ''They were like, 'Wow, that was nice.'''

An unselfish play? A pretty assist? Wait a minute. Aren't these supposed to be hoodlums?

''I'm sure they think we're a bunch of punks,'' said Nick Aldrich, 18, who has closely cropped red hair, an easy smile and a history of substance abuse. ''We just go out there and play. We try not to think of what they think of us.''

To be sure, all 10 members of the Arthur R. Gould School's basketball team are acquainted with a court system that has nothing to do with lanes and 3-point lines. They made bad choices, broke laws, and now live and attend school surrounded by tall metal fences that curve in at the top.

Not to be confused with Gould Academy, a boarding school in Bethel noted for its skiers and snowboarders, the A.R. Gould School is the educational component at Long Creek, one of two juvenile corrections facilities in Maine.

Now in their second year as a team, the Gould Bears are undefeated through 10 games. They began the week ranked fifth in the Class D Western Maine boys' basketball standings, yet they're still unsure whether the Maine Department of Corrections will let them go to Augusta for the state tournament, set to begin Feb. 12.

Kim Deering, the athletic director at Gould and the driving force behind the basketball program, said, ''I don't want (corrections administrators) to make a decision without them seeing what this is like, and what it means to our kids.''

Deering, a former softball infielder and field hockey goalie at Deering High and the University of Southern Maine, has coached at the high school and collegiate levels. She is a member of USM's Husky Hall of Fame.

She understands the lessons and values that can be learned through athletics.

''Sports is really important for kids,'' she said. ''It keeps them out of trouble and they learn a lot from the experience: teamwork, respect, discipline, working together, trust.''

When Deering arrived in 1999 as recreation director at Long Creek, she immediately started an intramural athletics program. Inspired by photos and accounts of a basketball team that had played against high schools two decades earlier, she finally succeeded last winter in fielding another interscholastic team.


Gould played eight basketball games in 2008-09, winning five. A booster club, Friends of Long Creek, bought uniforms. A staff member, Chad Sturges, served as coach and helped create the standards of behavior required for participation.

''We have to work around a lot of rules and regulations here, so that's been challenging,'' Deering said. ''I don't know if this would work as well if we had a coach who didn't work (at Long Creek) with the kids.''

Emboldened by the first-year success, Deering set up a 12-game home-and-away schedule for this winter, only to learn in the fall that, because of an unrelated incident during the summer, no residents would be allowed off grounds except in emergencies. Deering had to call other athletic directors, explain that Gould couldn't travel to their schools and ask if they were willing to play behind locked doors at Long Creek.

Richmond declined. Isleboro and Buckfield said they would make one trip to South Portland. Seacoast Christian of South Berwick and Pine Tree Academy of Freeport agreed to come twice. Elan School of Poland offered to come three times.

''I was going to eat humble pie on it, and said that I would understand if you guys don't want to play us,'' Deering said. ''I wouldn't want them to think these kids have an advantage, because I don't think these kids are at an advantage in any way, considering where they're at.''

With a new team cobbled from the roughly 95 residents at Long Creek, and with a new coach, Tom Profenno, who took over when Sturges had scheduling conflicts, Gould has won seven of its games by at least 20 points. The regular season ends today with a game against Elan.

''They're a little rough around the edges, obviously, but they're putting the work and the effort in,'' said Profenno, who played at Portland High and Southern Maine Community College before becoming a corrections officer.

''It's been pretty positive all the way around. That's what I'm shooting for, to instill confidence and the idea to count on others, and hopefully they can transition that to the outside.''

Aldrich, Semuhoza and Nono -- he averaged 10.5 point per game for Class A Deering High last season -- are the captains. All three are from Portland, although Nono was born in Sudan and Semuhoza was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They came to this country at age 3 and 15, respectively.

Two players from last year's team are now the managers. Other residents function as statisticians, photographers, videographers, timer, sound manager and announcer.

''We try to include as many kids as we can,'' Deering said. ''We have a lot of staff and teachers here (at the games). They're all on board, talking about it, high-fiving the kids. This is a big deal.''


At a recent game, a smattering of handmade signs hung from the white cinderblock walls of the eight-year-old gym, which has a climbing wall painted to look like a rocky outcropping. Residents in the school-issued tan pants and gray shirts (black shirts for girls) watched from the five rows of bleachers lining one side of the court, occasionally mustering chants of ''Dee-fense, Dee-fense'' and ''Here we go, Bea-rrrs, here we go.''

Except for the security guards with radios clipped to their left shoulders and handcuffs visible behind their backs, the atmosphere was like that at any high school in Maine, with the crowd noise, the chirps of sneakers and the occasional referees' whistles.

There are no game programs listing the players, because confidentiality laws prohibit the staff from publicly identifying any of the Long Creek residents. Only the players who signed permission forms -- or had parents do so -- were allowed to speak with a reporter for this story, or have their photographs published. Those who were interviewed and photographed signed permission forms.

Harrison Guptill, coach of Seacoast Christian, said going through security, passing through three bolted doors between the gym and the locker room, and not being able to bring in things such as snacks and cell phones can be a little frustrating.

''Having said that, every time I've been up there everyone has been very, very nice,'' Guptill said. ''Their style of basketball is a little different from ours. They are a little more rough. But nobody should not be able to play. It's a good healing process for a lot of people, for teenagers especially.''

''Whenever you get a door that clicks behind you, there's something in your head that reminds you you're not in a typical gym,'' said Chris Bowring, who officiated at Long Creek for the first time last month. ''But once you throw the ball up, it's another game. The folks who are in there are still kids.

''When we talked to them before the game, they were very courteous and attentive,'' Bowring said. ''I'm guessing there may be repercussions if they get out of line.''

Indeed, players are judged weekly on their behavior. If it's not up to snuff, they lose privileges. If they're not passing every class, they don't play. Shirts stay tucked in uniform shorts. Swearing is not tolerated.

Twenty-seven kids tried out for the team and 18 made it. Ten remain -- the rest either quit or failed to follow the rules. On game days, those 10 wear their blue basketball warmups to classes, a welcome reprieve from a drab world of beige and gray.

For games and daily practices, they get to wear sneakers with laces, instead of the standard issue black high-tops with four Velcro straps.

''We can't have laces,'' said Hopkins, the point guard from Lewiston, ''in case we try to hurt ourselves.''

Hopkins, who played as a freshman at Lewiston High, had to sit out three games because he was ''fooling around'' in his unit, and stole shampoo from another resident.

Nono -- who played in Chicago as a freshman, in Minnesota as a sophomore and at Deering as a junior -- and Hopkins are the only players with prior high school athletic experience. Only Nono played varsity ball.

Semuhoza, at 6-foot-2, is the tallest player. At 19, he's also the oldest. He played soccer in Bukavu, a large city in Congo, and came here with his brother and father to avoid a war that took the lives of millions of Africans. His mother and four sisters are in Burundi.

''I was kind of scared the first time (at Long Creek),'' Semuhoza said. ''I didn't know how people will react. But all my teammates became like my family. We work hard for this team.''


School spirit in a place like Long Creek seems implausible. And yet an undefeated basketball team, cheers and applause from peers and teachers, and a tangible sense of pride all point to a remarkable transformation.

''It has a huge effect on the kids,'' said Donna Williams, a social worker at Long Creek, while watching a recent game from the bleachers. ''A lot of these kids have some pretty serious self-esteem issues, and this does a lot for building self-esteem, for building character and integrity.''

Aldrich remembered his early days at Long Creek last spring. He behaved well for about a week. After that, he didn't care. He got into fights. Talked back to the staff. Got sent to the high-risk, high-needs unit.

''He and I did not get along,'' said Deering, the athletic director. ''He came in with a huge attitude. He was rude and mouthy to staff.''

They laugh about it now. At least, Aldrich allowed himself a small chuckle as Deering rolled her eyes.

''Half of the kids' problems are that they're bored and their families suck,'' said Alexandrea Aldrich, an older sister of Nick, who brought her 16-month-old daughter to a recent game. ''We never had rules in our house. There was no structure.''

In addition to basketball, Nick Aldrich attends every program he can, from Bible study and crochet to AA meetings. Anything to get out of his unit, he said.

''When you're in the units, there's really nothing to do,'' he said. ''You get bored, so you do stupid things.''

Before a game last week, Aldrich asked his sister to iron his dress clothes, and to make sure that not a speck of lint remained on them.

He has a speech to deliver today, when Gould will hold a pep rally -- yes, a pep rally -- before its regular-season finale against Elan. He hopes he'll be able to wear that suit and tie to Augusta for the Class D tournament.

''We'll be doing everything possible to facilitate that participation,'' said Bartlett H. ''Barry'' Stoodley, associate commissioner of corrections. ''We'll be meeting (today) and reviewing the complete situation, including the status of the kids on the team.''

Stoodley said security and public safety are concerns, as are confidentiality and privacy.

Aldrich looked back on the progress made this season, collectively and individually. He would hate to see it come to an end this afternoon.

''It's kind of hard trusting people in a facility like this, but we've come a long way,'' he said, lightly fingering the wisps of hair on his chin. ''We trust each other. We've got something good here.''

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:


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Additional Photos

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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Wed. 01/27/2010. Gould's #13 Nick Aldrich shoots over Pine Tree players as Gould School hosts Pine Tree Academy boys basketball at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Wed. 01/27/2010. Gould's #23 Ian Nono shoots the ball over Pine Tree's #00 Owen Pierce as the Gould School hosts Pine Tree Academy boys basketball at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Wed. 01/27/2010. Nick Aldrich, Gedeon Semuhoza, Ian Nono, George Hopkins and Manny Grimmick are among the Gould School players that host the Pine Tree Academy boys basketball at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Wed. 01/27/2010. Bears coach Tom Perfenno and player Nick Aldrich watch as Gould School hosts Pine Tree Academy boys basketball at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.


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