Mikenzie Melendez drives to the basket while Mariyah Fournier defends during a game at XL Sports World in Saco on June 14. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SACO — The basketball rolled out of bounds and Anna Nelson bent over to pick it up. She turned to the official and held the ball out to him.

But instead of taking it, as he normally would during the time stoppage, he backed away and gave Nelson a nod. She then turned and, after he blew his whistle, inbounded the ball.

Basketball returned last weekend to Maine, or at least basketball in the age of coronavirus, with coaches and spectators wearing face masks, temperature checks at the door and referees rarely touching the ball.

The Maine Hoops basketball club began holding games throughout the state at three sites on June 13 and will do so every weekend (except for the Fourth of July) through July. Fifty-nine travel teams, both boys and girls in grades five through 12, participated the first weekend and 72 were scheduled to play this weekend. The games are held at XL Sports World in Saco, the Maine Basketball Academy in Portland (the former McAuley High), and the Gilman Street Basketball Club in Waterville, with a fee of $175 per team for two games and $7 for spectators.

So strong was the lure to play that a team from Old Town, which included players from Bangor, Dexter, Millinocket and Machias, made the two-and-a-half hour drive to play at XL Sports World.

“It’s totally worth it,” said Matt McInnis, coach of the Maine Sting, wearing a face mask that made his beard itch. “(Basketball) is a big part of these ladies’ lives. The ladies, and our boys, have worked hard in practice, and it feels good to see them playing competitively and doing what they love.”

Parker Sasseville, left, and Isaiah Searles vie for the basketball during a game at XL Sports World in Saco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But there are those who wonder why games are being played right now. The virus that causes COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets between people in close contact with each other, according to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control. Most health officials, and even the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), favor a phased approach to the return of sports, focusing early on individual skills at a social distance – with games coming in the last phase.

“Why the rush to bring back these competitions?” said Jon Solomon, the editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, headquartered in Washington, D.C. “The best practices from a lot of health officials is a phased approach.

“Travel sports should be the last phase.”

But those who attended the games on the opening Saturday spoke of the mental and social benefits of returning to play being as important as the games.

“It was time to get out and be healthy, and it was good for his mental health,” said Erin Elwell, whose son, Jack, plays for the Midcoast Elite ninth-grade team.

For the players, it felt good to simply play and forget about the last three months, when sports were shut down as the virus outbreak spread.

“I totally forgot about the whole (pandemic) situation during the game,” said Sophia Michaud, who will be a junior at Gorham High this fall and plays for the XL Thunder. “It was just basketball.”

Lenny Holmes, the owner-organizer of Maine Hoops, said the interest is so high that he could have 150 teams involved, including some from out-of-state. But he is limiting games to Maine teams and trying to make things as safe as possible.

“People want to play,” he said. “And we’re going to try and make that happen.”

An attendant sanitizes team benches between games at XL Sports World in Saco on June 14. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

To make it happen, Maine Hoops is following guidelines established by the federal CDC, the state’s guidelines for community sports, and Zero Gravity, a basketball event company that partners with Maine Hoops.

Holmes also sent out a series of guidelines to the teams and referees, noting specific safety features that need to be followed.

The referees, for example, are asked to try to maintain a proper distance from the players – follow the play instead of being right on top of it – and limit their touches of the ball. Several times, a referee stopped the ball out of bounds with his body, then nudged it toward a player with his foot. Referees do not wear a mask during game play but are required to wear one any other time.

Anyone involved had to sign a liability waiver, acknowledging the risk of playing. Before teams even depart for their games, coaches ask parents to check the health of their players.

“There’s an evening communication with the parents,” said Pat Carson, the coach of the Maine Attraction girls’ team, consisting of players from Oxford Hills, Falmouth, Nokomis, Gardiner, Portland and Gorham. “We ask, ‘Do all of your kids feel well? Would you do a temperature check?’ Then, before we leave, there’s a morning communication, ‘Everybody still feeling good?'”

Jayvan Khamis of Portland has his temperature checked before entering XL Sports World in Saco to play basketball on June 14. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Before entering, everyone has to have a temperature scan. Teams are limited to 22 people in their group, including players, coaches and fans. Wrist bands are provided to each team, and when they run out, no one else from that team can enter. Holmes said he is allowed to have 100 people in XL Sports World – an athletic facility with three basketball courts and two indoor soccer fields that features 22-foot high ceilings and a ventilation system that circulates air – but he prefers to keep it closer to 80 people, including officials and staff members. The number of people in the building topped out at 88 for a set of two games on the first Saturday.

Teams are asked to arrive 30 minutes before their scheduled game and wait in the parking lot after checking in. Only teams that are actually playing will be allowed in the building.

Spectators are asked to bring their own chairs and to socially distance themselves. They sit on the far sideline, at least 6 feet away from the court. They must wear face masks at all times, which resulted in a much quieter game, most of the sound coming from the scuffing of sneakers on the floor, the dribble of the ball, the clang off the rim, or an official’s whistle.

Players do not wear masks while playing but must as they enter and exit the court. When they come off the court during a game, they are offered hand sanitizer and drink from their own water bottles.

Edward Buckley, coach of the Maine Renegades, wears a mask while talking to his team during a break in the action at XL Sports World in Saco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Coaches are required to wear face masks at all times. While shouting instructions, some would tug the masks down, or to the side, to make their intentions clear. “There was a little bit of miscommunication,” said Carson. “I noticed some of the girls saying, ‘What? What?’ But I’ll gladly put on a mask if it allows the kids to do something positive.”

Nelson likened it to playing at the cavernous Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. “You can’t hear your coach there at all,” she said.

Travis Doughty, who coaches the Midcoast Elite eighth-grade boys’ team, found out how strict the rules were. After he entered the building, he took his mask off as he walked to his bench. “(Holmes) came over to me and told me I had to keep it on,” he said. “They’re being pretty safe about it.”

Following the game, there were no handshakes or fist bumps between the teams, just a wave to indicate, “Good game.” Once the teams left the bench area, it was sanitized by a member of the building’s staff – squirting a disinfectant on the benches then wiping them down – before the next team was allowed in.

Carson knows there are those who question whether the games should be played, but he had high praise for Holmes and Maine Hoops.

“This was very therapeutic for the kids,” he said. “And it was run very well. There was a lot of information disseminated ahead of time to the coaches, parents and players. I think it went as well as it could.”

And, said Michaud, it could provide a glimpse of the future.

“It could be the new normal,” she said.

Sarah English shoots under pressure from Elizabeth Willette during a game at XL Sports World in Saco on June 14. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

CONCERNS ABOUT GAMES INSIDE

Youth sports have slowly been returning the last few weeks, with tennis camps opening and baseball and softball leagues holding games.

But basketball, played indoors, is a different animal. The sport, by its nature, does not allow for social distancing. In games played on the first weekend at XL Sports World, players dove for loose balls, crashed into each other for rebounds and played tight defense.

As the Maine Attraction’s Carson noted, “We had times when we were spaced. But we also had times when we were playing basketball.”

Being indoors is another issue. In the state’s guidelines for community sports, it is noted that “risk of virus transmission decreases in the outside environment. Indoor sports activities significantly increase exposure to respiratory droplets in the shared air space.”

The NFHS, the governing body of high school sports, classified basketball as a moderate risk sport which contains “close, sustained contact.”

In its Return to Play COVID-19 risk assessment tool, the Aspen Institute ranked each sport’s activities from lowest to highest risk. The highest risk for basketball: “Participate in any team or large group pickup play with non-household members and shared balls.”

All of these factors were considered by parents.

“We went back and forth a million times about whether it was worth it,” said Erin Elwell. “But we decided you’ve got to carry on and take the safety precautions … I’m happy with it, and now when we go back home, we’ll take precautions to make sure we’re healthy before hanging out with anyone. It just felt good to be doing something normal again.”

Spectators wear masks while sitting socially distanced in their own lawn chairs at XL Sports World in Saco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rick Simonds, the coach/founder of Maine Renegades, said he had fewer teams participating this year (five) than last (30). But it wasn’t entirely because of coronavirus. Travel basketball typically runs from March through May. But the pandemic shut that down, and programs are now trying to play summer ball.

“Not all of those who opted out were simply based on fear, but because of the time being pushed back and kids are now involved with Little League, and some have said they’re going on vacation for two, three weeks in July and it doesn’t make sense to join,” he said.

Simonds said that he decided to play because the parents wanted to. “I think more than anything, I err, or try to err, on the side of caution and part of that, to be very candid, is because I fall in the age group that should be concerned,” he said. “But what happened was, I was kind of inundated by parents saying, ‘We’re ready, we’re ready, it’s time.’ More than I, they drove the bus on this.”

The age of the participants is also a factor in the return to play. A study released last week found that children and teenagers are only half as likely to get infected with COVID-19 as adults age 20 and older, and they usually don’t develop clinical symptoms of the disease. But children who contract COVID-19 and are asymptomatic can spread the virus, including to older family members.

Heidi Long said she had no concerns about her son, Connor Sides, contracting COVID-19 from playing for the Coastal Elite eighth-grade team. “If he was going to get it, he probably would have already gotten it,” she said. “We live in a small community (Hartland, in Somerset County). I’m just glad he was playing. It brings out another side in him, confidence, the social aspect. It was a joy.”

Players from the Thunder and Maine Renegades square off while spectators wear masks in the background during a basketball game at XL Sports World in Saco on June 14. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Holmes said he received many messages from parents who wanted basketball to resume. “I put feelers out but had no idea what the response would be,” he said. “As time went on, the response was overwhelming. Everyone wants to be safe and everyone is doing what they can to make it safe. But they said, ‘My child needs this in his life.’ ”

Many of these players hadn’t seen each other since March, when schools were shut down for virtual learning. “It was just good to see them,” said Anna Nelson. “It’s just fun to be back playing with my team.”

The Aspen Institute’s Solomon understands that desire to be together. “I get it, all kids want to come back and play sports,” he said. “That social connection is huge. But to what degree do you need that social connection?”

Rather than competitions, Solomon suggests individual or small group workouts, which is what the NFHS guidelines recommend in their three-phase approach to opening up high school sports. It doesn’t recommend practices or competitions for moderate risk sports until Phase 3.

Gib Parrish, an epidemiologist from Yarmouth who once worked for the U.S. CDC, cautioned that the age of the participants shouldn’t be a deciding factor on whether to play. “What you need to do is differentiate between things that increase risk and things that people want to do,” he said. “The social justification of getting together does not erase the risk of transmission.”

Dr. Kate Quinn

Dr. Kate Quinn, a physician with Maine Medical Partners Orthopedics and Sports Medicine and the team doctor at Greely High in Cumberland, said there “are a lot of different things to consider” when talking about the return of sports, and not just the local, state or federal guidelines.

You should consider the COVID trends in a community, the size of the gatherings and the actual sport, whether it involves close contact or a high respiratory rate.

“It can be done,” she said. “But there are some different considerations and steps to take.”

With basketball, the screening process and the cleaning of equipment and facilities is going to have to be thorough. “You have to be very cautious,” said Quinn.

As far as playing inside? She said there’s still a lot to learn.

“There’s talk in general that the transmission of COVID is less in an outdoor environment because (respiratory) particles can disperse better, whereas indoor, particles can be trapped in recycled air,” said Quinn. “But I don’t have a good answer to that. In respects to some of the documents, such as the NCAA guidelines which prefer the outdoor environment, I don’t think we know.”

In its Considerations for Youth Sports, the U.S. CDC does not suggest not playing indoors. Its guidelines state: “If playing inside, ensure ventilation systems or fans operate properly. Increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors.”

Quinn said everyone has to weigh the risks involved with playing.

“Every parent, every athlete,” she said. “It’s about their degree of comfort with things.”

Jack Elwell, who will enter the 10th grade at Oceanside High in Rockland in the fall, had some concerns about playing.

“Where we’re from, there’s not much (COVID) at the moment and we’re coming to a place where there’s more of it,” he said. “So yes. I was concerned.”

But in the end, he wanted to play.

“It’s been a long three months,” he said. “It felt pretty good to be out there.”

Staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

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