LISBON — In terms of basketball, it might have been one of the worst displays of defense.

In terms of humanity, it was one of the best.

In a playoff game last week, Lisbon High junior Jake Patenaude drove in for a layup. Sophomore Joe Pelletier of Deering/Portland had position and could have easily blocked the shot. Yet Pelletier did nothing, except watch Patenaude zip by him and score.

Pelletier’s take on the play?

“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s not about us as partners, but the kids who are athletes.”

This is the world of “unified” basketball, a sport co-sponsored by Special Olympics and the Maine Principals’ Association. Unified teams are a combination of athletes (students with developmental disabilities) and partners (students without disabilities) who help keep the flow of the game going. The five players on the court for each team include three athletes and two partners. The sport is co-ed.


The Portland/Deering Unified Basketball team huddles up at the start of their game against Lisbon.

The Portland/Deering Unified Basketball team huddles up at the start of their game against Lisbon.

Now in its second year at Maine high schools, unified basketball participation nearly doubled this winter from 17 teams to 32. The season ended with the state championship game at Lisbon High on Thursday. Hampden Academy, in a rematch with the host Greyhounds, won a second straight title with a 36-27 win.

More schools are planning to field teams next season, and there is talk of expanding the unified format to other sports.

“The atmosphere for every game is so positive,” said Isabel Stehli, a partner with Deering/Portland, which played Libson in the South regional final on Tuesday. “It is so cool to see.”

According to the rules, partners can score up to 25 percent of a team’s points, but Deering/Portland partners did not take a shot against Lisbon. The Greyhounds’ partners scored four points, but it mattered little in Lisbon’s 44-24 romp.

“I always make sure to pass it,” said Erick Molina-Garcia, a senior partner with Deering/Portland.

In the state championship, Lisbon partners scored six points, while Hampden partners took only one (missed) shot.


Hampden’s focus on the athletes went so far that when partner Kyle Townsend was fouled – and handed the ball by the referee – Townsend backed away from the free-throw line and surrendered the ball to athlete Zach Ewing, a fellow senior.

“It’s all about the athletes,” said Dakota Clement, another senior partner.

When Ewing stepped to the line, the Hampden student section cheered wildly.

“I heard everyone,” Ewing said. “It feels good.

“This was a great season. Our team was very supportive and respectful toward one another.”

Ewing missed both his shots, but he was still cheered by fans from Hampden – and Lisbon.


It’s another trait of unified basketball – “unified” support from the crowd.

“You cheer everyone, from both teams,” explained Mike Clement, Dakota’s father.


When Lisbon senior Austin Bedford arrived at the Greyhounds student section, he wore eyeblack and was ready to join his classmates.

“There’s no ego here. No fighting between fan sections,” Bedford said. “We cheer more for our team, obviously, but we cheer the athletes from the other team when they score.”

Hampden alumnus Will Huston was a Broncos partner last year and came to root for this season’s team.


“There is no negativity,” Huston said. “It meant so much to us, we wanted to come back.”

While Hampden (13-0) and Lisbon (12-1) completed their second years, Deering/Portland finished 7-5 in its first season. The team quickly turned the page on its loss in the South final, high-fiving, hugging and posing with their runners-up medals.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve done as an athletic director,” Deering athletic director Mel Craig said of unified basketball. During the game, Craig cheered for both teams’ baskets. After the game, she pulled out her cellphone and took pictures of players and the schools’ unified cheerleading squad.

“It really is culture-changing in your school climate,” Craig said. “This team, they are now athletes. They’re having lunch together. They go down the hallways and they’re getting high-fives from students.

“They’re recognized and they’re celebrated. It’s been such an inclusive piece to what we do.”

Craig said choosing the partners – finding the “right student” was a key. Deering/Portland has four partners – Pelletier, Molina-Garcia and two senior girls, Stehli and Gianna Gaudet, a former Portland High player.


Portland/Deering's Camden Ryan, center, is congratulated by teammates Joe Pelletier, left, and Gianna Gaudet after Ryan scored for his team.

Portland/Deering’s Camden Ryan, center, is congratulated by teammates Joe Pelletier, left, and Gianna Gaudet after Ryan scored for his team.

“I didn’t play varsity basketball this year and I get questions like ‘Why aren’t you playing real basketball?’ ” Gaudet said. “My answer is always, ‘This is real basketball. This is what it’s supposed to be.’ The competitiveness and having sportsmanship is really great. All the athletes are awesome. They love to play. They’re great teammates, always helping each other, always picking each other up.”

Special Olympics launched the format of unified sports about 30 years ago. Today unified basketball is played at the high school level in 10 to 15 states, according to Ian Frank, the unified sports coordinator for Special Olympics in Maine. Unified sports started in Maine about 20 years ago, Frank said, with the initial events staged in one-day tournaments involving club teams rather than school-sponsored teams.

Special Olympics and the Maine Principals’ Association began talking three years ago about working together to form a league at the high school level.

“It’s such a great activity for the entire school,” said MPA assistant executive director Michael Burnham. “It’s not just about basketball, but inclusion, school culture, opportunities to include a group of students that maybe haven’t been involved before.”

The word is spreading.

“It’s been beyond expectations,” Frank said. “The first year was so positive and successful, and then we nearly doubled (the teams).”



Hall-Dale High School fielded a unified basketball team this year – all because of a baseball injury.

Ryan Sinclair, now a Hall-Dale senior, injured his knee in the 2015 baseball season, requiring several surgeries and keeping him from playing varsity basketball this year. (Players on varsity basketball teams are excluded from unified basketball.)

The experience made Sinclair think of others who don’t get a chance to experience varsity athletics.

“I noticed all the kids around school who didn’t have that capability of playing sports in high school,” Sinclair said. “I wanted to give them that opportunity that I always had.

“The perfect thing to do was start a unified basketball team.”


Sinclair got the school’s blessing and, as part of his senior service project, put together a team.

Sinclair was at Lisbon High on Thursday with his team, accepting one of three Sportsmanship Award banners from the MPA – Messalonskee and Leavitt being the others.

There are likely to be more teams competing next year.

“We’re hearing from more schools that want to get involved,” Frank said. “Something must be going right.”

Two of those schools, Cape Elizabeth and Gray-New Gloucester, played a unified basketball scrimmage in Gray on Thursday afternoon.

“What an amazing experience,” Gray-New Gloucester athletic director Aaron Watson said. “To see kids on both teams being great teammates, playing hard, supporting themselves, and having smiles from ear to ear the entire game.


“The community came out in force and packed our stands. . . . I don’t know who benefited more – the kids that played, or the community to see them in action.”

Burnham said the eventual plan will be a unified sport played in each season.


One factor that the MPA is monitoring is competitiveness. While fun and participation are the goals, there is a sponsored playoff, with a championship. It is conceivable that partners not only facilitate the flow of the game, but could control it, along with scoring a fourth of the points.

Portland/Deering's Christian Perez is all smiles after scoring a basket in action against Lisbon.

Portland/Deering’s Christian Perez is all smiles after scoring a basket in action against Lisbon.

“The (issue) has come up more our second year,” Burnham said. “When you crown a champion, it takes on a different meaning. … It will be certainly something we look at.”

Hampden coach Andrea Lee said partners should be able to score under the current guidelines.


“I don’t think we should negate partner scoring,” she said. “It’s all about the teamwork together, and playing unified. … I thought we would have to use some partner shots (Thursday), but the athletes came through.”

The playoffs did not take on a different meaning for Deering/Portland Coach Adam Perron. He would call a timeout and talk about the positives he saw in his team’s play. He often substituted five players at a time. His team was losing by 20 points, but Perron’s demeanor never changed – always clapping, always smiling.

“There’s nothing better than seeing a kid so excited about doing something positive on the court,” Perron said.

Matthew Mikklesen was excited. He scored 10 points, all in the paint.

“I’m the big guy so I have to play somewhere,” said Mikklesen, a 6-foot-2 senior athlete. “But if I get outside, I can shoot from there, too.”

Mikklesen said it took time for his team to come together, “but we worked and we’re here for the (South) finals. I think it’s great.”


It seemed great, even with the loss. Late in the fourth quarter, with his team down 40-18, Portland/Deering junior Malakai Green scored a jump shot, turned and pumped his fist, joy all over his face.

Molina-Garcia leaped in the air with his own fist pump.

“I like it when they celebrate,” he said. “That’s my favorite part.”


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