BAR HARBOR — Watching from the sidelines at Mount Desert Island High School’s Bunny Parady Gymnasium, Sean Geagan rests back in his chair as he watches a group of basketball players go up and down the court. Whether those players are wearing purple and gold or green and white, he’s offering support with every word.
As the opposing MDI Trojans go down the court, the head coach of the Bucksport unified basketball team watches as they pass from player to player. Before long, the ball reaches MDI’s Spencer Rose, who makes a 3-point shot as the entire gymnasium jumps to its feet.
“Good job!” Geagan shouts to Rose as he claps his hands and rises to his feet. “That was a great shot.”
Under normal circumstances, cheering for an opposing player at a sporting event might seem out of place. In unified basketball, though, there’s rarely a fan, coach or assistant who isn’t doing so regardless of who wins or loses or how many points a player scores.
Monday’s game between MDI and Bucksport marked the first of the 2018 unified basketball season for both teams. As is the case every time a unified basketball game is played, the positive atmosphere in the gym made everybody a winner before the game even began.
Unified basketball is an adapted version of the game suited for high school students with developmental disabilities. MDI was the first Hancock County high school to offer the sport in 2016, and Bucksport and Ellsworth joined the following year.
Scores, records and some statistics are kept for games, but that’s not why players, assistants and fans show up for them. Instead of a game constrained by tightly enforced rules, coaches, assistants and even officials help players enjoy the game by whatever means necessary, whether they’re on the court or on the sidelines.
“It’s so much fun to be here for this,” said sophomore David Gross, who serves as team manager for the Bucksport team. “The kids love it, and it’s a great experience for everybody who comes.”
Across the state, everyone is coming to that realization. Between new programs offering unified basketball and schools forming partnerships, what started out as a grassroots effort in 2015 has now expanded to include 52 teams.
In varsity basketball, teams such as MDI and Bucksport aren’t likely to play one another in the regular season because of class-size differences. Yet in unified basketball, where the chance to play is more important than the final score, those differences don’t matter.
“It’s really special to watch,” said Sally Merchant, an educational technology specialist at MDI who works with special-needs students. “You have to see it to truly understand what it means.”
As the game drew to a close, Geagan, Gross and MDI head coach Matt Umphrey high-fived players from both teams after baskets, and the referees allowed numerous substitutions to make sure everyone had equal playing time.
The post-game scenes following Bucksport’s 71-51 win resembled those that occur following most unified games: team photos, both teams supporting one another and everyone in the gym giving players congratulatory messages.
“It’s about making sure everyone plays and enjoys it,” Merchant said. “Everyone gets a chance, and that’s what matters the most.”