Three boys started a pickup basketball game as they waited for the rest of the Baxter Seagulls to arrive for their last practice of the season. Abel Celestino waved his arms at a teammate.

“When I say I’m open, do you know what that means?” Abel, 11, teased in American Sign Language. “When I sign that, you should actually pass the ball.”

Abel Celestino of the Baxter Seagulls reacts after making a basket during their final game of the season against Pine Tree Academy. 

The Seagulls represent the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing/Governor Baxter School for the Deaf. Basketball has a long tradition here, but budget constraints and the COVID-19 pandemic put it on hiatus for six years.

This winter, the organization revived a middle-school team. Most kids who signed up had never played the game, and they found not only a new sport but a place to connect with deaf and hard-of-hearing peers.

“I love that it’s a deaf team,” Abel said through an ASL interpreter. “I love playing with them. We all have a great time. We don’t fight. We are patient. We help each other improve.”

Jayson Seal dribbles down the court during a game against visiting Pine Tree Academy. 

The Governor Baxter School for the Deaf opened on Falmouth’s Mackworth Island in 1957 and operated as a boarding school until 2009. Today, the boarding school no longer exists, but the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing/Governor Baxter School for the Deaf is headquartered on the historic campus, operates a preschool for deaf and hard-of-hearing children there and serves deaf and hard-of-hearing students statewide. The staff have fanned out across Maine to support more than 700 students who communicate in both ASL and English, and there are dedicated programs in Portland and Brewer public schools.

Executive Director Karen Hopkins said the nine players come from throughout southern Maine. Some started their education at the preschool on the island, while others are immigrants who knew neither English nor ASL when they moved to Maine.

Their games have become social events for the broader deaf community, drawing families whose kids are on the court and alumni who played years ago. The Seagulls faced off against local teams of hearing students, but they also traveled for matchups at other deaf schools in the region.

“We’re trying to shift so children are not alone,” said Hopkins, who grew up in Millinocket and did not meet another deaf person until she was 18. “Children not only are together as peers, but they are looking at their future.”


The last game of the season was on Mackworth Island against Pine Tree Academy. To hearing spectators, the gym was noisy. The ball thudded on the court. Sneakers squeaked on the polished wood. Visiting players shouted to each other, and their families chatted in the stands. The buzzer sounded, and the referee blew his whistle.

But it wasn’t exactly loud. Coach Matt Welch paced the sideline and signed to his players in big, sweeping movements. The players constantly scanned the court, their eyes moving from the clock to the referee to the coach to each other, watching for a whistle blow or a quick instruction or a warning about the shot clock.

Assistant coach Jennifer Hickey congratulates Gabriel Alberto, right, after he came off the court, as teammate Timote Ntima smiles. 

Basketball has its own signs that are familiar even to fans who don’t know ASL – hands stacked in a T for a timeout, wrists rolling around each other to call out traveling – so the referee didn’t need much translation. (But he had been practicing his finger spelling, and an ASL interpreter was always positioned between the two teams in case he needed her.)

Some spectators clapped, while others twisted their hands in the air in silent applause. On the sideline, Margaret Ryan waved massive blue and yellow pom-poms. Ryan, 70, graduated from the school in 1972. She led two young girls in a cheer.

“Blue, yellow, blue, yellow,” they signed in unison. “Fly, fly, fly!”

“I’ve always rooted for these kids,” Ryan said through an interpreter. “I always want them to feel like they have people rooting for them.”

Ryan attended a deaf school in California for a couple of years before her family moved to Maine and enrolled her at the island school. Ryan wasn’t “a sports person,” she said, but acted as the scorekeeper for the girls’ basketball team. Today, she is retired and lives in Falmouth.

“For the deaf community, it’s an absolutely vital part of culture and upbringing to be immersed, seeing people with their language,” she said. “There should be no limitations. They should just be themselves and have a joyful and positive experience.”

Elizabeth Seal was at every game this winter. She and her husband, Josh, both attended preschool on the island and then went to separate public schools. Seal works at Maine Hands and Voices, a nonprofit that supports families in the deaf community. They live in Lisbon Falls with their four children, who are also deaf or hard of hearing. Jayson, 11, is their oldest and in sixth grade at Philip W. Sugg Middle School in Lisbon.

Margaret Ryan, who graduated from the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in 1972, cheers for the Baxter Seagulls during their final game of this season. 

“On the recreational basketball team he was playing on before, he would sometimes have a hard time following what was going on on the court since he had to keep relying on visual cues and reading lips,” Seal wrote in an email. “On the (Seagulls) team, he was able to have 100% access to the game. Jayson was able to communicate directly with Coach Matthew Welch and his teammates and work on technical skills.”

“I loved attending the games because not only did I want to support my son, I was able to enjoy watching the games and converse with other spectators using ASL,” she added.


On the court, Abel is one of the smallest players, but he’s quick to point out that he will get taller. In the first half of their final game, the Seagulls were down by 2 points when Abel snatched the ball and made a layup. He threw his arms out wide and his chest out proud in a moment of celebration.

“I’m not really a great basketball player yet,” he said through an interpreter. “I know if I practice, if I practice the dribble between my legs, I can get better.”

Abel lives in Saco and attends fifth grade at the East End Community School in Portland. Nguinamau Celestino said his son has access to more educational services in Maine than he would have in their home country of Namibia. Their family came to the United States in 2017. He and his wife, who are both hearing, have worked hard to learn both English and ASL.

“That’s good for him to see that being deaf cannot stop him doing things that other people can do,” his father said.

Coach Matt Welch tells his players to set plays during a timeout in a game. Jayson Seal, center, is a sixth-grader at Philip W. Sugg Middle School in Lisbon. 

With less than a minute to go in the third quarter, Pine Tree Academy was up by 2 points. When one of their players missed a layup, Chyanne Morey of the Seagulls grabbed the rebound. She is one of two eighth-graders on the team and attends Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland. She’s more into arts than sports and joined the squad despite having no prior experience with basketball.

“I wanted to meet other deaf kids and make some new friends,” she said through an interpreter.

Chyanne has been coming to this campus from a young age. Her parents are hearing and do not have any deaf relatives. Chyanne and her younger sister, who is hearing, both attended preschool on the island in order to get early exposure to ASL. Chyanne said she doesn’t plan to play basketball in high school, but she liked playing with deaf teammates.

“I think that meant the world to her, to feel like she wasn’t missing out on anything,” said her mother, Samantha Hebert.

Timote Ntima guards Carson Hodsdon during practice at Mackworth Island. The children come from across southern Maine to practice on the island after school.

In the final quarter, Pine Tree Academy pushed ahead. Despite a 13-point deficit, the Seagulls ran hard in the final minutes of the game. Hunter Deane, another eighth-grader, took a big 3-point shot in the final seconds but missed. He said he liked learning the game but plans to spend his time in high school on other interests, such as robotics. After the buzzer, he was sweaty but had a cheeky smile on his face.

“Finally, I’m retired,” he signed.

The teams exchanged high fives. As they left the court, a Pine Tree Academy player approached an ASL interpreter with a question. She demonstrated the sign he wanted to know, raising her hand to her chin and then moving it down and toward him. He turned to Welch and his team, and repeated it.

“Thank you,” the player signed.

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