STANDISH—Ask anyone involved with the Unified Basketball team at Bonny Eagle High School what makes it great and they’ll probably mention the smiles.
Unified Basketball brings together students with developmental disabilities and those without to form a competitive basketball team that plays against other schools.
But competition takes a back seat to enjoyment and a wholehearted kind of sportsmanship at the games, according to co-coach Paula Pettersen.
Players on the team are “just as happy when someone on the other team scores a basket as when they score a basket,” said Pettersen, who works as an educational technician at the middle school.
The students “always smile no matter what happens,” said student Maya Daniels, a partner entering her second season with the team.
Daniels, who plays field hockey during the regular season, said besides the basics of dribbling and passing, playing for the team has taught her that “everyone should be treated fairly, and everyone is equal” regardless of ability.
Unified Basketball started three years ago with a partnership between the Maine Principals Association and Special Olympics Maine. Bonny Eagle was among the first high schools to adopt the program. Since then, the list of schools with unified teams has grown significantly every year, said Eric Curtis, athletic director.
This year, Windham High School will join the list with its own unified team. The Regional School Unit 14 Board of Directors voted on Dec. 7 unanimously to sanction the team, which received a $2,500 scholarship from Special Olympics to spread over two years to help get the team up and running.
Teams include a mix of players, who have developmental disabilities, and partners. During the game, there are three players and two partners on the court at a time. Students who play varsity or junior varsity ball are not able to play unified because their schedules conflict.
Pettersen said the players have a range of disabilities; some are nonverbal or may need assistance walking, and others play recreational league basketball after unified practice.
Partners are allowed to shoot up to 25 percent of the team’s total points for any game, but Pettersen said the partners on her team avoid shooting, preferring to set up players for a shot.
Aiden McGlone, a partner and team captain, said he prefers “passing it to the players and watching their faces when they score. That was just always better to me.”
McGlone, a member of the school football team, said the players are “usually a better shot than me.”
Brandon Pierce will be a player for the high school team for the first time this year. He played previously on the middle school’s unified team and said he joined because he wanted to have fun with the other team members.
This year, he said joining the team will help him to make friends in the high school.
Practices for Bonny Eagle’s unified team start in mid-January, and the team will play eight games against teams from other schools.
Teams are allowed to have up to 22 students, but Curtis said interest at Bonny Eagle exceeds that number.
“We’ll have to turn kids away this year,” he said. But they find other ways for students of all abilities to be involved – whether it’s announcing the games, playing music or throwing T-shirts into the stands.
Students also get involved by filling the stands, he said, which are usually packed with cheering fans. And the next day, students greet players and partners in the hallway with high-fives and congratulations, he said.
The game is about “sharing and sportsmanship,” he said, values that are reflected only on the court and then permeate throughout the school.
Brandon Pierce, center, a player on Bonny Eagle High School’s Unified Basketball team, with partners Aiden McGlore, left, and Maya Daniels.
Brandon Pierce, a player on Bonny Eagle’s Unified Basketball team, gets some free-throw pointers from team partners Aiden McGlore and Maya Daniels.