Portland seniors Gemima Motema, left, and Amanda Kabantu, joined by family, friends, coaches and PHS assistant principal Kim Holmes, sign their National Letters of Intent Friday to attend and play basketball at Northeastern University in Boston and Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, respectively. Michael Hoffer / For The Forecaster

PORTLAND—This was a signing like no other.

Friday afternoon, amid cheers and no shortage of tears, Portland High seniors Amanda Kabantu and Gemima Motema, who came to America three years ago from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, signed their National Letters of Intent to play college basketball and earn an education at two New England institutions of higher learning.

Kabantu will play at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, while Motema will play at Northeastern University in Boston.

The effervescent Kabantu and quiet-but-deadly Motema, who along with Davina Kabantu, Amanda’s older sister, who graduated from Portland High last spring and is now attending and playing basketball at Bates College in Lewiston, burst onto the Maine high school basketball scene in the winter of 2017-18, but their play on the hardwood is just the beginning of their story.

A pretty incredible story.

After a short stay in California, the girls came to Portland and were embraced into not only the Portland High School and Portland Basketball families, but they’ve also become forever family to Scott Stacey and his children, Grace, PHS Class of 2019, and Charlie, a high school junior.

And Friday, at Scott Stacey’s home in Portland, an inspirational journey of a lifetime was celebrated.

“This means everything to me,” said Amanda Kabantu. “It hasn’t been easy, but I feel like I’m in the right place at the right moment. I love my (American) family with all my heart and I’m so thankful for what they’ve done for me. I’m surrounded by people who love me unconditionally.”

“It’s incredible, I feel complete joy today,” said Scott Stacey, who is technically the girls’ guardians, but is known to them simply as Dad.

“You don’t get many opportunities in life to expand your family 100 percent. It may have started out with us lending them a helping hand, but we’re really the ones who have been graced by their presence.”

Love and basketball

Prior to the start of the 2017-18 basketball season, there was plenty of buzz around the Portland girls’ program as the Bulldogs’ three new players and the journey that Motema and the Kabantu sisters took captured the attention and imagination of all who learned of it.

The girls had arrived in Maine expecting to live with a relative in Portland, but he took a job out of state and suddenly, the girls found themselves without someone to house and watch over them.

Enter an abundance of guardian angels.

Kim Holmes, the assistant principal at Portland High School and student advocate without peer, reached out to several community members seeing if they could help.

Stacey was one of the people Holmes contacted and he stepped into action.

“We were one of 10 or a dozen families that got an email that said (the girls) needed help finding housing,” Stacey said. “We knew the girls from Grace playing basketball with them. We gave it some thought and I floated the idea to Grace and Charlie and said, ‘What do you think?’ Grace and Charlie, to their credit, they took the idea and ran with it. I’m proud of them. Charlie and Grace gained three sisters and I gained three daughters.”

The girls moved in with the Staceys, but still had to assimilate to a new country and culture while having only intermittent contact with their parents and siblings back in the Congo.

“It was definitely challenging,” Amanda Kabantu said. “I left my country at 14. I had to learn how to grow up and become an adult at a young age. I will never take it for granted. I know how fortunate I am. I appreciate every second I have with this family.”

“I came here and I didn’t know anybody, but the Staceys helped me mature and made me who I am today,” said Motema. “Portland High School is like my family.”

Whether on the ground or in the air, Portland senior Amanda Kabantu is impossible to stop. Kabantu will play college basketball at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. File photo.

While life presented its challenges, basketball came easily to the girls, who lived up to billing and helped the Bulldogs reach the regional semifinals in both 2018 and 2019, then get to the Class AA North Final a year ago, losing to eventual state champion Oxford Hills.

Amanda Kabantu and Motema, who have also starred for the Firecrackers AAU program, made the Southwestern Maine Activities Association All-Rookie team as freshmen, then were second-team all-stars their sophomore years (even though Motema missed half the year with a leg injury).

Last winter, Kabantu and Motema made the SMAA first-team and were also named to the All-Defensive team. Additionally, Kabantu was selected Portland’s Winter Female Athlete of the Year by The Forecaster.

“Amanda was our heart and soul,” said Gerry Corcoran, the Bulldogs’ coach the past three seasons, whose contract wasn’t renewed for this winter. “She’s one of the most talented young players I’ve ever been blessed to coach at any level. She is the complete player with the work ethic to match.

“Gemima is such a God-given athlete and she’s put in the time. She’s great on both ends of the court and has great instincts.”

Both girls received plenty of interest from colleges and wound up where they wanted to be.

“I wanted to play in college ever since I picked up a basketball,” said Kabantu, who plans to study business. “I fell in love with Bentley. I had other schools recruiting me, but I was really hoping they’d make me an offer.”

“It’s just a blessing to get to play at the next level, which has been my dream,” said Motema, who hopes to study cyber security. “Northeastern was the school that stood out for me. I’m so excited to go to Northeastern and continue playing basketball. I’ll go out and play hard and show them who I am.”

Prior to the formality of signing Friday, both girls expressed plenty of appreciation.

“This means everything to me,” Kabantu said. “It’s great to see my family and everyone who has supported me be happy. I’m thankful for my Firecrackers teammates for pushing me and for my high school teammates for enjoying wins together and crying together when we lose. I’m in a great place and I’ve got nothing but love for being surrounded by amazing people.”

“My teammates have been there for me,” Motema said. “When I had my surgery, I thought I didn’t have a team anymore, but they supported me. I’m so grateful for the Staceys. They’ve been a blessing in my life.”

Holmes, Stacey and Brian Clement, who coaches the girls with the Firecrackers, were all emotional and effusive in describing the significance of the signings.

“Thank you for trusting us to be here with you and to lead you through this journey,” Holmes said. “You’ve changed my life. I love you like you were my daughters.”

“It’s a really special moment,” Clement said. “Not only are they pursuing their basketball dreams at good schools, they’ll get a great education. The Staceys gave (the girls) the amazing gift of not only welcoming them into not only their house, but into their family. Of all the Firecrackers experiences, I’m not sure I feel better about something in terms of just plain goodness than this situation. I can’t imagine at my age having to leave my country and having to go somewhere else and know that I won’t see my family. The way they’ve approached this part of their journey with gratitude and appreciation just blows me away.”

“They’re so thankful and hard-working and they take nothing for granted,” Stacey added. “They work their tails off in school. I always thought English was their second language, but it’s actually their fourth (after French, Swahili and Lingala). For them to achieve what they’ve achieved is a testament to them.”

Portland senior Gemima Motema can dominate a game on both offense and defense. She’ll play at Northeastern University in Boston next year. File photo.

Seeing yellow

While Kabantu and Motema’s future plans are now settled, unfortunately, the present is not.

Friday, just hours before the signing, Cumberland County received a “yellow” designation from the Maine Department of Education in its color-coded system that determines the risk of community spread of the COVID-19 virus. Schools within yellow counties are unable to hold any athletic activities, with coaches limited to communicating with their players virtually, according to guidelines established by the Maine Principals’ Association and state agencies.

As a result, Portland, which is already in the process of welcoming a new coach, Abby Hasson, doesn’t know when or if it will be able to next take the court. Games are tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 11, but that is now up in the air.

Rest assured that Kabantu and Motema want nothing more than to take the floor as Portland Bulldogs one more time.

“I want to put on the Portland uniform again,” Motema said. “I’m super-excited. I wish I could play right now.”

“I really want to play this season so badly,” Kabantu said. “I’ve spent time reflecting on mistakes from last year and I’ve beaten myself up for not winning states last year. I wanted one more chance to get there. At this point, I’m just enjoying every single moment I can have with my teammates.”

Local basketball fans would love nothing more than to see Kabantu and Motema play again, but their legacy and the emotional power and uniqueness of their story will long be hailed.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘How long are (the girls) with you?’ and I say, ‘I hope forever.'” Stacey said. “Every now and again, you hope to make good decisions in life and leave the world in a better spot and every now and again, you get it right.

“We got this one right.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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