Triangle wheelchair basketball players push for national title

tstevens@newsobserver.comApril 21, 2013 

— Michael Lewis began his athletic career playing baseball in the Miracle League, an organization that helps children with special needs play the game.

But that wasn’t competitive enough for Lewis so he seized the opportunity to play wheelchair basketball.

“It’s great,” said the Fuquay-Varina High sophomore from Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he goes each week for one-day treatments for Morquio syndrome, an inherited condition that prevents the body from breaking down some sugars.The disease can lead to a wide range of physical problems, including heart and skeletal impairments.

“Playing basketball gets the anger out. It lets me burn a lot of energy. I can relax and get a lot of exercise.”

Lewis, 15, uses a wheelchair and is one of five players on the Junior Thunder wheelchair basketball team that will compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association national championships in Louisville, Ky., on April 18 through 21.

The players are from 8 to 15 years old and qualified for the nationals by playing in tournaments scattered through the Carolinas and the rest of the Southeast.

Other Triangle wheelchair teams have advanced to the national tournament, but the Junior Thunder is believed to be the first youth team to advance.

“It is incredible,” said Bella Terenzi, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Mills Park Middle School in Cary. “We’ve gone from being a team that couldn’t make a basket to one of the top teams in the country.”

The Junior Thunder is ranked No. 11 in the national prep division. Its coach, Michael Atkins suffered a spinal cord injury in a 1989 automobile accident when he was 26 years old and knows what the program can do for children.

He was a part of some of the first wheelchair basketball teams in the area. He remembers Laurie Holley, a rehab specialist at Wake Med, who helped raise the initial funding.

“I’ve played wheelchair basketball for 20 years,” he said. “I kayak and love water sports, drive a Harley Davidson trike and I’ve competed in the Marine Corps Marathon and in marathons in Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina.

“But working with these kids is a real treat. They are a great bunch of kids. I love working with them. This program does so much for them. You can just see them growing in confidence and satisfaction.”

Getting equipment

The Junior Thunder is part of the Bridge II Sports (bridge2sports.org) program, which helps organize competition in various sports for children and adults who have disabilities. The group provides equipment, coaching and playing space.

“We don’t need pity,” Atkins said. “We need a chance. My best time (in a wheelchair) in the 5K (about 3.1 miles) is 14:42. There aren’t that many runners who can top that.”

Equipment is a big issue, Atkins said. The basketball players use wheelchairs designed for athletics. The chairs can cost $1,200 or more.

When he first started playing, Atkins would arrive an hour early to disassemble his chair and put it back together so the wheels slanted outward. The alignment allows quicker turns and provides a stable base.

He’d have to reassemble the chair for daily use after playing.

The sports chairs have wheels that slant outward and are lighter, faster more stable and provide more protection from injury in collisions.

“If you’ve got an 8, 9 year old can you afford to buy a sports chair that your child is going to out-grow in a few years?” he said. “That’s one of the great things about Bridge II Sports. Getting a chair isn’t a problem.”

“We crush them”

Lewis, the Fuquay sophomore, is glad there is a program, not just a team, because he knows there will be a place for him to play after he ages off the prep squad. He is the oldest player on the Junior Thunder and is team captain. He takes his duty as a role model seriously.

“I know the younger guys look up to me,” he said. “Playing has allowed me to be a leader.”

The players vary in ages and in their physical disabilities. The players’ conditions include spinal bifida, cerebral palsy or amputations.

Boys and girls play on the same team and some of the girls are among the club’s best players.

Jumping ability isn’t a factor and height isn’t much of an advantage as a group of current and future NBA players, including C.J. Leslie, John Wall, Jerry Stackhouse, Josh Powell and Jawad Williams, have learned in exhibition games against an older Triangle wheelchair team.

“We crush them every year,” Atkins said.

Williams, a former University of North Carolina standout and Cleveland Cavaliers player, said in an interview after a wheelchair exhibition, “It was tough. It was one of the hardest things I’ve probably done as an athlete. I know I’m in shape, but that’s tough right there.”

Terenzi likes the physical challenge of playing. She had a spinal injury that left her with paralysis but she loves basketball.

“Basketball is my passion,” she said. “I love basketball and now I get to play. One of the great things is that we get to show people what we are capable of. The confidence that I get from being able to play is amazing.”

BridgeIISports charges no fees and relies on contributions and fund-raisers. The Junior Thunder has received about $3,000 in donations to help pay expenses for the trip to the nationals, but still needs more, Atkins said. Any excess funds will be used in the program.

TSTEVENS: 919-829-8910 If you want to give The Junior Thunder is a part of Bridge II Sports. To make a donation, to learn more about the program or to become involved, contact fiona@bridge2sports.org; call 866-880-2742 or write to Bridge II Sports, 5037 Brenda Court, Durham, NC 27712.

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