Christopher Verschoor on the Brewer unified team drives the ball down the court as Isaiah Walker of Orono defends during a Jan. 29 game at Brewer High School. Both teams are scheduled to participate in the inaugural Maine Basketball Hall of Fame Unified Classic on March 18 at Memorial Gym in Orono.

The University of Maine’s Memorial Gymnasium, affectionately known as “The Pit,” has been a big part of Skip Chappelle’s life.

First it was his home as a college basketball standout for the Black Bears during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Then the cozy facility, once cited by Sports Illustrated as one of the toughest home courts in America, became his domain as the men’s basketball coach at UMaine from 1971 through 1988.

Now Chappelle is working to bring the state’s newest level of the sport to the iconic venue on the Orono campus with the first Maine Basketball Hall of Fame Unified Classic on Wednesday, March 18.

The Classic is one of several season-ending showcases being held around the state for Maine’s burgeoning unified basketball program. Unified basketball began its sixth season in January under the auspices of the Maine Principals’ Association and Special Olympics Maine with 61 teams representing 67 high schools.

Unified basketball matches students with developmental disabilities, unified student-athletes, with non-varsity basketball players without developmental disabilities, unified student partners. The athletes and partners train together, compete and represent their schools in competition against other programs.

The Maine Basketball Hall of Fame Unified Classic will feature three games beginning at 5 p.m. with Old Town against Orono, followed at 6 p.m. by Ellsworth against Mount Desert Island and concluding at 7 p.m. with Brewer against Hampden Academy.

Admission will be by donation, and game programs featuring pictures and rosters of all the participating teams will be available.

“What we wanted to do was showcase some of these rivalry games, opponents regionally that have big games against each other in the regular seasons of all sports,” said Dave Utterback, athletic administrator and unified basketball coach at Brewer High School who is working with Chappelle to organize the event.

“We’re working to get the bands and cheerleaders there, too, and hopefully we get a big crowd to support the kids.”

The MPA decided before this season began to suspend unified basketball’s traditional postseason tournament, citing concerns about an overemphasis on competition in some quarters with a state championship at stake during the sport’s early years in Maine.

That doesn’t mean these games will lack competitiveness, Utterback said.

“It is competitive for those kids who play, whether it’s competing to get a rebound or competing to beat somebody out on a fast break or competing to get to the rack to finish off a layup,” he said. “That’s as competitive as these kids have ever been in that environment.

“And to showcase them in a historic facility like The Pit, probably other than the Bangor Auditorium I’d imagine the Pit is right up there as one of the most historic places in Maine basketball history.”

Chappelle, who along with former Maine commissioner of basketball Peter Webb conceived of the idea for a Maine Basketball Hall of Fame more than a decade ago, sees the organization’s support of the unified basketball showcase as a natural extension of the hall’s efforts. For the last two years, it has sponsored the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in late December for high school varsity teams.

“We’ve got more than 200 inductees in the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame now, and you can bet that all of them took some of the life lessons they learned from playing the sport into the rest of their lives,” Chappelle said.

“If some of these kids pick up one of those life lessons that sports can give you from playing unified basketball, then it’s all worth it.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...