Josh Ross, a member of the Thornton Academy Unified basketball team, practices trick shots and long-distance shots for “hours” at the school’s Linnell Gymnasium. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SACO — Josh Ross dribbled the ball deliberately to half court, then turned his back to the basket.

On the Thornton Academy bench, teammate Mac Lowe yelled out to Ross, “The other way. The other way.”

Then, said Lowe, “Josh looked over to me as if to say, ‘I got this.'”

Ross, a junior on the Thornton Academy Unified basketball team, shuffled his feet a bit, got set, and then flung the ball over his head, backwards, a long arcing shot that swished through the net, prompting a boisterous celebration at Linnell Gymnasium and making Ross a social media star.

A video of his shot, which came in a 58-58 tie with Sanford’s Unified team on March 8, appeared on Twitter a couple of days later and has been viewed nearly 9,800 times. Many people are calling it the shot of the year, the highlight of the high school season.

“It was incredible,” said Mike Cook, a Saco resident who posted the video on Twitter. “I mean, it’s like the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. And what made it even more special is that it was done in a Unified game.”

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Those who know Josh Ross aren’t surprised that he made the shot. He practices it, and other long-distance shots, endlessly.

“That’s who Josh is,” said Kristin Smythe, a special education teacher and Unified coach at Thornton who has Ross in the classroom and on the court. “If you tell him he can’t do something, he’s going to show you up. Academics or sports, he’ll make it happen. He’ll do it.”

Kristin Smythe is a special education teacher and Unified coach at Thornton Academy who has Josh Ross both in the classroom and on the court. “If you tell him he can’t do something, he’s going to show you up. Academics or sports, he’ll make it happen. He’ll do it.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ross, 16, was born with Down syndrome. Smythe called him “a helper” in the classroom, always aiding her in whatever she’s doing. Lowe called him a “great kid, always nice to everybody.”

And he loves to play basketball. He said he spends “hours” practicing his shots. And it shows. He likes shooting behind the 3-point arc, and when he’s hot, he doesn’t miss often.

He transferred to Thornton Academy from Scarborough High two years ago and joined the Unified team this year at the suggestion of Smythe, who shares coaching duties with Tricia Heidelbaugh.

“I know the impact that Unified has had on the students in my classroom and students across the campus,” Smythe said. “I just knew it would be a good fit for Josh. And he was ready to go.”

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The Maine Principal’s Association began offering Unified basketball at Maine high schools in 2015. The sport pairs students with developmental disabilities with students without developmental disabilities, called partners. The sport promotes the values of sports, such as physical activity, teamwork and sportsmanship, as well as social inclusion. Seventeen schools took part the first year; this year, 62 schools sponsored Unified basketball teams.

Lowe, a junior forward on Thornton’s boys’ basketball team, is partnered with Ross on the Unified team. He joined Unified basketball as a freshman at the urging of his older brother.

“I enjoy it because it gives students an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise get, like Josh,” Lowe said. “He gets to come after school and have fun and meet new friends. And it’s special when they light up after scoring a basket.”

Mac Lowe, left, and Josh Ross are teammates on the Thornton Academy Unified basketball team. After Ross made a half-court, back-to-the-basket, overhead shot during a game on March 8, Lowe says Ross’s “smile was the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Like Josh Ross. Asked what his favorite time of the day is, he said it’s when he gets to play basketball.

Thornton had only two Unified games this year because of a lack of players. But the shot by Ross, which came at the end of the first half, made a lifelong memory, not just for himself, but for everyone who was there.

Cook attended the game with his wife, Angela, an ed tech at Thornton Academy. They began going to Unified basketball games when their daughter, Lexi, served as a partner on the team and haven’t stopped even though she has graduated. A friend sent the video to Angela Cook, and she passed it along to Mike.

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“I saw him doing that shot in warm-ups and remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, that’d be awesome if he did that in the game,'” Mike Cook said. “And then, looking at it after he shot it, I thought, ‘That’s going to go in.’ It was great.”

“It was remarkable,” Lowe said.

On the video, you hear the crowd’s reaction and see people in the background jumping in joy. Ross, however, turned to his bench and simply strutted toward them, as if it were nothing special.

But when he reached the bench, his teammates mobbed him. Then the Sanford team came over and mobbed him, too.

“To see the look on his face, it was a smile that I’d never seen before on him,” Smythe said. “He was just in awe of everyone’s support, his teammates, the other team. And the crowd. It was incredible.”

“I’m so happy and proud of him,” Lowe said. “I’ve never seen him so happy. I’ve never seen anyone that happy. His smile just lit up the room. Once he walked over to the bench, his arms went up and he was giving high-fives to everyone. … And his smile was the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.”

For Ross, there was a reason to smile.

“I made a basket,” he said.

One that will never be forgotten.


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