Saturday, March 22, 2008

Blazers of Glory

Your arms ache, you're covered in sweat, and your thumbs suddenly have enormous callouses on them. A faint odor of burning rubber pokes its way into your nostrils.

No, I'm not describing what your night would have been like if you had accepted that invitation to dinner with Eliot Spitzer.

I'm describing what it's like to play wheelchair basketball.

I've never had as much fun as when the New England Blazers of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) visited Nokomis Regional High in Newport a couple of weeks ago for a charity tournament.

The Nokomis faculty team employed a strategy of Mock and Distract, donning nerdy helmets and pads to try to look as pathetic as possible.

It worked. We only lost by 45 points.

Mac Williams weaved around all the other players as if his chair had been fitted with rocket boosters and power steering. Megan Anderson played bruising defense, and Player-coach Paul Cowan led fast breaks that would have made the Showtime-era Lakers proud.

Craig Popper, a student of mine who plays for the Blazers, prevented me from crossing half court several possessions in a row until I finally threatened him with an F.

Yours Truly managed to score two baskets. I also dominated the boards, adapting the rebounding philosophy of Charles Barkley (“Go get the damn ball!”) to my skill level (“Wait for the damn ball to fall in your general direction!”).

It turns out you do have to dribble in wheelchair basketball. Paul explained how to do this, but applying the skill turned out to be ... shall we say... a low priority.

And there is no feeling in the world like shooting a layup while rolling along at 25 miles per hour, only to watch the ball ricochet off the bottom of the rim and as you helplessly careen into the wall.

When it was all over, it felt good to get out of the chair. And it occurred to me, as it would have to, that the players on the other team didn't have that option.

Before you start expecting this to turn into some cheesy inspirational sermon, I want to point out that I don't feel sorry for those guys at all, and not just because they kicked our butts.

Why would I boo-hoo for those who have found passion and pride in playing their sport, who seem like some of the happiest people I've ever encountered? I have more compassion for the man in line at the grocery store whose wife left him because he didn't know how to communicate with her.

Or how about the woman scanning my groceries who drifts through life without a sense of purpose, surviving only on some peculiar pill that makes it hard for her to identify what code number to punch in for my nine-pound bag of ugly tomatoes?

If you look closely, you can see pain or listlessness in people's faces, or in their posture and their gait. But we instead get caught up superficial differences.

I don't know what happened to Paul Cowan's legs, but I'll never forget his Cheshire cat grin as he explained how we could keep from tipping over.

Craig Popper will readily admit that he hates being stuck in a wheelchair, but he doesn't talk much about that. Instead, he prates incessantly about how great he feels when he's in the weight room or on the basketball court.

I wish more people had his good fortune.

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