Roll! Shoot! Score! By Jill Cueni-Cohen
Ordinary basketball takes on a whole new dimension when it’s played by teams in wheelchairs.
“Wheelchair basketball really is a game of inches,” said Diana Helt, 19, as she strapped herself into a wheelchair built specifically for playing basketball. The chair lacks handles and is able to make hairpin turns and quick stops.
“You want to get your chair in the way of [an opponent’s] chair, and whether or not you have wheel position depends on a fraction of an inch,” said Helt, of Ross. “You want to be able to get away fast.”
Helt, a freshman who is studying sports management at Slippery Rock University, is a member of the Steel City Starz, the only women’s team in Pennsylvania sanctioned by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
Helt has cerebral palsy. She is able to walk but usually uses a wheelchair to get around Slippery Rock’s sprawling campus.
On Thursday, she and her eight teammates participated for the first time in the 30th annual National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Tournament.
About 125 athletes took part in the tournament, held Thursday through Saturday in the university’s Robert N. Aebersold Student Recreation Center.
Starz Coach John Sikora petitioned the National Wheelchair Basketball Association to bring the tournament to Slippery Rock University this year because of the college’s reputation for offering a variety of academic programs for people with disabilities.
The team was created 14 months ago out of Sikora’s desire to include more disabled women in competitive sports through HOPE Network, a nonprofit organization he founded to provide sports, recreation and fitness opportunities to people with disabilities.
Sikora, 50, of Freeport, has used a wheelchair since he suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident when he was 17. He is a former gold medal-winning member of the USA Paralympics wheelchair basketball team.
He said HOPE Network’s programs include adaptive snow skiing, water skiing, bicycling, track and other sports, all of which are open to either gender. “We have men’s basketball teams, but I wanted to get women more involved and show them that you can still dream dreams, and they can come true,” said Sikora, director of HOPE.
Before the tournament, the Starz team had played only against men, and Helt said she found playing against women to be more evenly matched. “Women are shorter, making it easier to go toe-to-toe physically. You have to have more of a strategy when you play against men.”
In the tournament, the Starz lost to the Atlanta Rolling Glory, but the fact that the team lost by only three points was cause for celebration.
“We couldn’t have asked for more excitement,” Sikora said after the game. “Victory was so close. We were only down by 3 points, but we’re a beginning level team with only two experienced people. It was great just to be in it and get a taste of the competition. You’ve got to love their ambition.”
Marci Galore, 38, of Hampton, had never played wheelchair basketball before joining the Starz in the fall. She had to have surgery on her ankle after a fall, which qualifies her to play on the team.
The fact that she is able to walk made moving around the court in a wheelchair difficult at first.
“You have to push your chair and dribble the ball. It’s hard on the hands because I’m not used to pushing, and they get blistered up if they’re not taped,” said Galore, a Physical Therapist.
“The game is all about chair mobility, and there are so many more things you have to think about when you play this game. It’s totally different from playing stand-up ball. It’s fun, but it’s a lot a more challenging. I really like it.”
Helt is accustomed to using a wheelchair, but she had to get used to whizzing around a basketball court on cambered wheels.
“There’s a little wheel on the back of the chair so you don’t tip over easily, but we’ve all fallen over,” she said. “You just get right back up and keep playing. We only stop the game if there an immediate danger to the player.”
On Sunday, after the competition, the USA National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team held tryouts for this year’s Paralympics. “The opportunity to host the USA Paralympic Team trials is quite an honor,” Sikora said.
Like this year’s Olympic games, the 2004 Paraylmpics will take place in August in Athens, Greece. Two of Starz’ players — Norah Schneider, of Slippery Rock, and Leah Gray, of Mount Pleasant — participated in the USA team tryouts, although neither made the team.
“We got to see firsthand the players who will have the honor to represent our country, and carry our flag and colors into competition against the best [physically disabled athletes] in the world,” Sikora said.
(Jill Cueni-Cohen is a freelance writer.)