College wheelchair athletes play in ‘other’ basketball tourney

Published: March 23, 2007  |  Source: phillyburbs.com
65

EDINBORO, Pa. – The nine teams battling it out on the basketball court here aren’t listed on any NCAA brackets. There will be no crowd-pleasing slam dunks, no sky-high leaps and no national television coverage.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any less madness in this March tournament.

As the game clock starts, these athletes dribble and pass the ball while propelling themselves down the court in sweeping, powerful strokes with their muscular arms on lightweight wheelchairs. They spin around opponents, blocking shots or stopping them from advancing. With a large crash, they slam into each other, occasionally falling on their sides before picking themselves up and doing it all over again.

This is wheelchair basketball.

Nine college teams of athletes with ailments ranging from congenital defects to spinal cord injuries are competing at this year’s Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Championships. Organizers and participants in the three-day tournament , which started Thursday at Edinboro University , say they provide just as much action on the court as their NCAA counterparts.

“There’s no lateral movement and no jumping. Other than that, it’s basketball,” said Frank M. Brasile, commissioner and founder of the Intercollegiate Division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, the governing body for the sport. Wheelchair basketball isn’t sanctioned by the NCAA.

Brasile said the biggest misconception is that the students competing in wheelchair basketball aren’t real athletes. In fact, the wheelchair players keep academic and athletic schedules similar to any other college athlete , practicing up to 20 hours a week, traveling in buses from game to game and still taking classes, he said.

And, unlike many other college athletes, few of these students are on athletic scholarships.

“These are all students who are passionate about the sport, but also passionate about getting a good education,” Brasile said while watching a first day matchup between fifth-seeded Southwest Minnesota State and eighth-seeded Oklahoma State.

In this sport, players are strapped into wheelchairs weighing about 16 pounds, about half as heavy as some traditional chairs. A small rear wheel helps the chair stay balanced, and side wheels are angled for quicker turning.

The mechanics of the game , from the plays called to the size of the court , are mostly the same as any other basketball game.

“Until you sit in one of those chairs and maneuver it, you really don’t appreciate how hard these guys work, how skilled they are,” said Bruce Baumgartner, Edinboro’s athletic director and a four-time Olympic medalist in wrestling.

Another misconception , that none of the disabled players can walk. About 35 percent of the wheelchair athletes can walk, but suffer from ailments that prevent them from playing with able-bodied athletes.

Brasile said the wheelchair is like any other equipment used by athletes , similar to ice skates on hockey players, for example.

“The chair is just a piece of equipment that puts everyone on the same level,” said Brasile, a former college wheelchair basketball coach.

Jim Glatch, Edinboro’s coach, said he’s never coached a harder-working group. The Fighting Scots (22-8) came into the tournament ranked third; they lost last year in the semifinals to Texas-Arlington, this year’s defending champion.

“We’re the group of people that everybody forgets about and it’s unfortunate because there’s a lot of incredible athletes that are going to be here this weekend,” Glatch said.

One of those athletes is graduate student Mike Looney, 28, who played lacrosse in high school and college before suffering a spinal cord injury in 2000 during a rock-climbing trip.

About a month after the accident, while going through Rehabilitation, he saw a wheelchair basketball game.

“I knew right then and there that I was going to play wheelchair basketball,” Looney said. “I love sports and I just wanted to be able to continue competing and get that competitive edge I already have.”

Looney had majored in accounting and planned to be an FBI agent before his accident. Now, the co-captain of Edinboro’s team is working on a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and he plans to work with other disabled people.

“I think that without wheelchair basketball, I probably would be sitting at home depressed or maybe even be dead,” Looney said. “It’s given me that hope , the hope to live.”

Since Glatch came to Edinboro in 1995, he’s seen the team go from just a recreational, club sport to a varsity sport. As the sport has grown in popularity, he hopes others will give it a chance.

“Come in with an open mind and just look at it as a basketball game,” Glatch said. “That’s the one thing I would want them to come out of it with is that ‘Hey, this is college basketball.'”

EDINBORO, Pa. – The nine teams battling it out on the basketball court here aren’t listed on any NCAA brackets. There will be no crowd-pleasing slam dunks, no sky-high leaps and no national television coverage.

By: JENNIFER C. YATES