Parker Sasseville, left, and Isaiah Searles vie for the basketball during a game in June hosted by Maine Hoops at XL Sports World in Saco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine’s top health official has told the state’s largest organizer of club sport basketball games that its plans to stage games in December “are not permissible” under the state’s guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.

Maine Hoops owner and operator Lenny Holmes has been planning to host games at unspecified sites in southern and central Maine for players in grades four through 12 beginning Dec. 18. Maine’s Community Sports Guidelines for youth and school-based sports state that competition in moderate risk sports such as basketball should not restart until Jan. 11.

“This means the games your organization plans to host prior to January 11 are not permissible,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew wrote in a letter to Holmes on Thursday. “We ask that you change your schedule as soon as possible.”

The letter came on a day when the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported a single-day high of 346 COVID-19 cases with two deaths. In the roughly three weeks since the Community Sports Guidelines were last updated on Nov. 13, COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled and 58 people have died with the disease in Maine.

Holmes contends that his plans are within the state’s guidelines. He said that even though his own website calls the competition games, they are effectively scrimmages because all the players are under one organizational umbrella.

Holmes said Thursday night that he received Lambrew’s letter and has responded to DHHS, outlining how all the players involved are registered with the Maine Hoops organization. Because of that, they should be allowed to gather and play within-organization games, Holmes said.

Within-team competition, or scrimmages, are allowed to begin on Dec. 14, according the state guidelines. Games “between teams from the same geographic area,” are not allowed until Jan. 11 under the guidelines.

“Right now, I’m not doing anything until I hear back from the commissioner. She sent me the letter and I sent one back,” Holmes said, adding he will halt games if Lambrew tells him explicitly to do so.

Maine Hoops ran over 1,500 games through the summer and fall, Holmes said, operating in the same way it intends to this winter, by grouping similarly skilled players into cohorts of about 40, divided into four or five teams. Teams would play five games within their cohort in a three-week period. After three weeks, the cohorts will be remade, and another session will begin. The cost is $425 per team, per three-week session.

This summer, Maine Hoops staged games at XL Sports World in Saco, the Maine Basketball Academy in Portland (the former McAuley High) and the Gilman Street Basketball Club in Waterville, among other sites.

“The rules just got moved to Dec. 14,” Holmes said of the updated state guidelines. “It’s the same rules. The rules have not changed. They added some things, like wearing face masks, which of course we will follow.”

Holmes said he sent his protocols for play to the state shortly after the Community Sports Guidelines were updated Nov. 6 and had not heard anything until Thursday. He believes DHHS sent him the warning letter telling him to stop operations because of complaints from school-based organizations, in particular the Maine Association of Basketball Coaches, whose active members are high school and middle school coaches.

“You look at the rules, you follow the guidelines, and then nothing happens all fall,” Holmes said. “And why are we changing? You and I both know why. The schools are complaining.”

Peter Murray, the president of the coaches’ association, wrote a letter submitted to DHHS requesting Maine Hoops be held to the same standard as schools and not be allowed to host games until Jan. 11.

In the letter, Murray wrote that he fully understands Maine Hoops “does not have anything to do with the MABC or the (Maine Principals’ Association), however it does directly affect our athletes. To me this is the worst possible situation under COVID concerns. High school players will be practicing with their team all week, then competing on weekends with a variety of opponents, then return directly back to their high school gyms and teammates.”

Murray, who is Dexter High’s boys’ varsity coach, told the Press Herald, “The way we look at it, whatever restrictions are put on high school coaches, it should be the same for everyone else. It seems like if those events are held over the next couple weekends, it seems to fly in the face of all the rules laid out by the state.”

Maine Hoops intends to run programs for boys and girls in grades four through eight – an age set that typically plays club basketball at this time of year – as well as a high school group, which is not typical in a non-pandemic winter. The age group for grades four through eight has over 500 registrations. There has been little interest from the high school demographic, Holmes said.

“I don’t expect there will be any high school stuff going on,” he said.

This is not the first time youth club sports’ operations have come to the notice of DHHS. In October, the Maine Amateur Hockey Association halted its schedule when DHHS said its guidelines did not support playing hockey indoors. The organization later resumed games only to curtail them when the Community Sports Guidelines were rewritten Nov. 6. At that point, Lambrew made it clear that club sports would operate under very similar guidelines and restrictions as those applied to scholastic sports.

Another concern when it comes to groups of young basketball players potentially traveling to play a game is that every county in Maine except northernmost Aroostook is experiencing high or substantial community transmission of COVID-19. A month ago, there were five counties with high transmission.

Holmes said Maine Hoops groups its players by county.

“All you’re doing is opening yourself up more (to the risk of infection),” said Cony boys’ varsity coach TJ Maines. “If you’re playing on a (club) team with kids from all these schools, you’re playing with them Sunday and bringing them back to our team on Monday. I would hope that wouldn’t happen.”

Maines has been a club basketball coach in the past who often works with Maine Hoops’ central Maine branch as a clinician.

Biddeford boys’ varsity coach Justin Tardif said keeping the rules consistent for both school and club sports is what he’s most concerned about.

“I think both the school systems and these outside organizations do a really good job of keeping kids safe. I think they both can do it,” Tardif said. “It just seems odd that one entity won’t be able to do it and another can. It’s odd that a player can’t go to Tiger gym (in Biddeford) and play but they can go (somewhere else) and play there.”

Tardif also brought up the point that York County is currently one of five Maine counties in the “yellow” category for the risk of virus spread. Until that changes, Biddeford and the other schools in York won’t be able to begin school sports activities, which are scheduled to begin Monday with physically distanced skills and conditioning. Androscoggin, Franklin, Somerset and Washington counties also are currently yellow. The state is expected to update the advisory system on Friday.

The Community Sports Guidelines also emphasized that club sports should heed the color-code system, stating: “Organizers of community sports should suspend competitions and group practices in counties categorized as “Yellow.”

Holmes, meanwhile, believes his approach for staging games among cohorts is safe.

“A hundred percent. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was safe,” he said.

UPDATE: This story was corrected at 8:15 a.m. on Dec. 4 to show that Maine reported 58 COVID-19 deaths between Nov. 13 and Dec. 3.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.