BANGOR, Maine — The tradition of taking down the nets after winning a basketball championship has lost some of its luster at the Eastern Maine high school basketball tournament in recent years.
It used to be a full-fledged ceremony, with each player on the victorious team climbing a ladder armed with a pair of scissors to cut off a piece of the net as a personal memento, then making way for the next teammate.
More recently the tradition has been abbreviated to the point of being a one-man grab, with one or two players climbing up to the net and tugging on a single cord to immediately free it from the rim in a matter of seconds.
For Carlos Baeza, however, it was the perfect way to celebrate Camden Hills Regional High School’s most recent Eastern Maine Class B championship after an 82-49 victory over Ellsworth at the Bangor Auditorium last Saturday afternoon.
A senior manager and team captain for the Windjammers, Baeza never expected to have such an opportunity — nor did he know for sure if he could pull it off.
For the 18-year-old Baeza suffers from cerebral palsy and has endured 27 surgeries over the years. While he still can walk, even that has been imperiled by steadily decreasing vision, with three detached retinas and subsequent scar tissue leaving him legally blind.
Yet given the opportunity to join in on his team’s celebration, Baeza wasn’t going to pass up the chance, he preferred to take a chance.
“At the end of the game, we were all hugging each other and Cameron Gartley, one of the other captains, came up to me and said ‘You’re cutting down the net,’ and I said, ‘Are you sure?’’
“The first step onto the ladder was fine, but then I couldn’t see the next step, so [teammate] Casey Scott helped me from behind to get up the ladder. Then I got up there and I said ‘Give me some scissors,” but I thought ‘how is a blind person going to cut the net?’ Then they told me all I had to do was to pull on it and it came right off. It was great.
“I still have the net at my house.”
For his teammates, it was an experience almost as satisfying as the game.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Tyler McFarland, a 6-foot-6 junior center for the Windjammers. “To me that was my favorite part of the win, to see him up on the ladder. He was on top of the world.”
Baeza hopes to share another basketball celebration with his teammates Friday night when Camden Hills battles Falmouth for the Class B state title, again at the Bangor Auditorium.
But Baeza’s contributions to his school’s basketball program and perseverance in light of his medical challenges already have earned him recognition far beyond the team’s bench.
Baeza has been selected as the Eastern Maine recipient of the 2010 Maine McDonald’s Spirit of the Game Award, and will receive that honor on March 12 during a banquet at Husson University.
The Spirit of the Game Award was created last year to honor two Maine high school seniors — one from the East and one from the West — who embody the spirit of the sport, exemplify sportsmanship, support and inspire their teammates and coaching staff, and show an ability to overcome obstacles and boundaries.
“For me to be able to put into words what I think of Carlos Baeza … to be able to describe what he means to me, and what he means to this entire school and community … is like asking me to sail around the world in a day,” said Camden Hills coach Jeff Hart, who nominated Baeza for the award.
“Carlos has been, and still is, one of the most influential people in my life.”
Overcoming the obstacles
Life is not without frustration for Baeza, but after being born 2½ months premature in his native Colombia, he is lucky to be alive at all, given that those involved in his delivery were less than optimistic about his short- or long-term future.
“The doctor told my mom she could have more kids,” he said.
Baeza and his family moved to the United States when he was 10 and settled in Rockport where Baeza lives with his mother Inirida and stepfather Victor just a couple of miles from the high school.
He arrived in his new country already suffering the effects of cerebral palsy, but still hoping to play sports. Soccer is his favorite, but basketball soon earned a big place in his heart.
“When I got here I thought I was going to be able to play,” he said. “I was in a lot better physical condition back then.”
There were subsequent flirtations with active competition — such as the time during intramurals he made seven of 10 shots from beyond the 3-point arc.
But the reality of his situation left Baeza acknowledging that competing on the field of play would not be an option.
“When I was a kid, the fact I couldn’t play sports just killed me,” he said. “I always wanted to be involved in sports, and when I knew I couldn’t play it was tough for me.”
Baeza was determined to stay involved with sports, and ultimately found his calling as a manager thanks to Will Gartley, who suggested he be the manager for the sixth-grade travel team he coached.
Despite beginning to lose his sight as a seventh-grader, he went on to perform similar duties with middle-school teams, then was the manager of the freshman team at Camden Hills before joining Hart with the varsity as a sophomore.
“I was real scared of him at first,” said Baeza. “When you first get to school as a freshman and you want to be involved in sports, you really look up to the basketball coach.”
Baeza has thrived in this role, though deteoriating vision in conjunction with his cerebral palsy has gradually limited his duties.
But his contribution to the team has transcended the folding of towels, the collecting of team warm-ups, or the myriad other tasks that are the responsibility of the team manager.
His teammates and classmates also see him actively involved in his school far beyond the boundaries of the basketball court. In 2006-07 Baeza served as class president. He’s also been a member of the debate team and the school’s Amnesty International chapter, and was named homecoming king in 2009.
Baeza currently is taking two college-level courses in English and Spanish, and plans to take two more courses this spring if he can fit them into his schedule in anticipation of attending college in the fall.
“I keep using the word inspirational when I talk about Carlos, but that’s what he is,” said Hart. “On his best day he doesn’t feel as well as you or I feel on our worst, but he’ll be at a game and you just know he’d die to get out there and play for 10 seconds.
“He inspires people here every day.”
Baeza was able to see Camden Hills win the Class B championship last winter, as the Windjammers capped off an undefeated season by defeating Cape Elizabeth 62-49 in the state final at Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center.
But by April 2009, his vision began deteriorating to the point that he soon became legally blind and unable to get around without the aid of a cane.
Yet Baeza was determined not only to finish off this winter what he had started as a manager for the Windjammers’ basketball team, but to take on a leadership role.
So when Hart sought written essays from each of the seniors on this year’s team in order to select team captains, Baeza wanted his chance.
“I asked coach Hart if I wrote something would he read it,” said Baeza. “I expected him to say no, but he told me to write something so I wrote about how I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team get to where I wanted it to be.”
Baeza ultimately was named one of four team captains, along with Gartley, McFarland and senior guard Jimmy Weferling.
While his game-time contributions are limited, Baeza is an active fan on the sidelines — so much so that instead of sitting on the far end of the Windjammers’ bench he gets a prime seat not far from the head coach.
“He wants to keep me out of trouble, because until this year I could see well enough to know if a ref was screwing up,” said Baeza. “I remember playing at Medomak Valley last year, and the ref made a bad call right in front of me and I said, ‘Are you blind?’
“He stopped and called a technical on red, which was us. I just froze, and then the ref said ‘technical on red 22.’ I took a deep breath, because I was lucky it wasn’t on me.”
These days Baeza listens to radio broadcasts of Camden Hills games while on the bench by wearing a receiver around his neck.
“I can see if we’re on defense or offense,” he said. “I can’t see the players, but I can tell the [uniform] colors and I know what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Baeza also knows Camden Hills faces a tough challenge against Falmouth in Friday night’s state final, but as someone who has faced tough challenges throughout his life he is optimistic about the Windjammers’ chances.
“I think we’re starting to peak now,” said Baeza, whose team enters the game with a 19-2 record. “I like what I saw in the last two games against Medomak Valley [of Waldoboro in the semifinals] and Ellsworth. I think we can win it now. Now we know what we need to do.”