When Madison’s Unified basketball team won the state championship last season, the only thing left for head coach Josh Bishop to do was go coach the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.

A bit of backstory is probably in order.

Last winter marked the first time Madison fielded a standalone Unified team, after two years as a co-operative team with neighboring Carrabec. When Bishop took the job to begin coaching Madison’s own Unified effort, it allowed him to fulfill one of the two goals he set for himself when he began coaching sports more than two decades ago.

“Having grown up in Madison, I always said I had two dreams when it came to coaching,” Bishop said Tuesday, the first day of the 2020 Unified season across the state. “I wanted to bring Madison its first Gold Ball, and — as a huge fan — I always said I wanted to coach the Lakers some day.

“As soon as we won, one of the first things my players said to me was, ‘You had one of your dreams come true.’”

Madison beat Westbrook in the Unified state championship game last March. The Bulldogs, however, won’t get the chance to repeat.

The Maine Principals’ Association announced two weeks ago that it will no longer hold a state championship game or playoff rounds for Unified basketball. Instead, a greater focus will be placed on season-ending festivals to be held at locations around the state.

“Personally, I agree with the decision 100 percent,” Bishop said. “A first, some of our kids were a little bummed, but we said last year before the playoffs even began that we were honestly just happy to be part of something. This gives us the chance to draw out the season another month and play just as many games as we did last year.”

The MPA holds Unified basketball in conjunction with Special Olympics Maine, and teams pair students with developmental disabilities with traditional students. Around 60 teams are expected to participate in Unified basketball this season, an increase of more than 300 percent from its inaugural season in the state.

Unified basketball debuted in Maine in 2015 with 18 teams.

“The biggest surprise to me is the impact (Unified basketball) has on the entire school,” said Mike Bisson of the MPA, who was the athletic director at Hampden Academy when that school introduced the sport and would still like to see Unified spread further into Aroostook county and some of the Downeast parts of Maine. “It makes an impact on the whole school culture. Students learn compassion and empathy for some other students they may not really know, about some of the challenges those students face every day.”

Winthrop High School was on board with Unified even before it was an official MPA offering.

Athletic director Joel Stoneton believes strongly in the sport, enough so that it is treated as every other varsity and non-varsity offering at the school. Winthrop has had a Unified program for seven years.

“Basketball courts and playing fields aren’t just an extension of the classroom — they are the classroom,” Stoneton said. “And this is no different.

“Right from the get-go, from Day 1, when we started practices you could tell it would be something special.”

Beyond the feel-good, inclusionary aspects of Unified basketball, there have also been tangible benefits from the sport at the high school level.

Bishop said there have been at least two instances he’s aware of — one at Carrabec High School and one at Madison — where members of the Unified basketball teams have then gone on to try out for their respective school’s varsity programs the following winter.

“I think one of the coolest parts of this is the confidence these kids develop,” Bishop said. “Having some of our kids feel confident enough to go try out for a varsity or (junior varsity) team, to have that kind of courage, that only comes from what they’ve been able to experience with the Unified team.

“For them to feel comfortable enough with themselves to go do that, that’s not always easy in this day and age.”

So, playoffs or not this season, Unified basketball remains strong. And communities are taking notice of the sport, as they did when hundreds of people from the Madison area made the 75-mile trip on a weeknight in March to watch their Bulldogs win the school’s first basketball championship of any kind.

“These kids feel like they are part of the school, and if we didn’t have a Unified team it wouldn’t always be easy for them to feel that way,” Bishop said. “When we went to Edward Little, all of the students and athletes from other teams, all of the people from the community, that wasn’t a show. This was something that meant a lot to everybody.

“That’s the piece of this that surprises me the most.”

“If I’m having a bad day, Unified changes all that,” Stoneton said. “I always encourage any administrators, people in the community, anybody who hasn’t seen it to come out and see a game. It’s very hard to put to words the emotions you catch from it.”

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