Wake County

Cary tournament raises awareness for people with disabilities

Michael Atkins, right, guards the ball during the 2nd Annual Wheelchair Basketball Tournament at the Bond Park Community Center Sunday, March 8, 2015 in Cary, N.C.
Michael Atkins, right, guards the ball during the 2nd Annual Wheelchair Basketball Tournament at the Bond Park Community Center Sunday, March 8, 2015 in Cary, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Will Curlee was in perfect position for a shot he says he normally makes at home.

The 9-year-old found himself wide open under the hoop during a basketball game at Cary’s Bond Park Community Center.

The ball bounced off the iron but landed right in Curlee’s hands for an offensive rebound. He immediately shot again, and missed again.

The rebound came Curlee’s way once more, and his third shot was true. A smile crossed his face as he rolled his wheelchair down the court to play defense.

“It’s harder when you can’t stand up,” Curlee said.

Curlee was one of 60 kids with typical abilities who strapped into wheelchairs on Sunday for the second annual wheelchair basketball tournament at Bond Park.

The event, which is organized by three sixth-graders from Mills Park Middle in Cary, aims to provoke participants to think about the situations of people with disabilities while also raising money for Bridge II Sports. A Durham nonprofit, Bridge II Sports provides opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in athletics.

Challenged to give back

Bridge II Sports lent 28 wheelchairs for the event, each valued at $2,500, according to Elly Johnson, a program assistant for the organization.

“To us, it’s worth it,” she said. “This is invaluable.”

The event raised $1,700 for Bridge II Sports last year when 50 people signed up to play, said Susan Stines, the event’s coordinator. Organizers hope to raise $2,500 this year, she said.

Stines’ 11-year-old son, Ryan, and his friends Ethan Roller and Max Wiley came up with the idea for the tournament about two years ago. Stines had challenged them to think of a way to give back to the community through sports, with which she said the boys had become obsessed.

Between basketball, football and lacrosse, “Sports were taking over our lives,” she said.

“Life is out of balance. Let’s get it back in balance,” Stines recalled telling her son. “Your community is what’s important. How will you give back?”

Ryan Stines suggested a wheelchair basketball fundraiser after attending a tournament in 2013.

“I wanted everybody to have a chance to play, even if they’re disabled,” he said.

None of the kids who played in the tournament games had disabilities. Those who did play, though, had friends on their minds.

‘We have it easy’

One team of teenage girls – Ally Wells, Regan Lawrence, Bryn Walker, Britney Dyck, Angela Maxwell and Sam Medlin – said the event made them think about a girl on their swim team who has one leg.

“She has to work a lot harder than we do,” said Maxwell, 15, who attends Heritage High School in Wake Forest.

“We have it easy,” said Wells, also 15, who goes to Green Hope High School. “It makes you appreciate what you have.”

For most of the players, wheelchair basketball was difficult at first – even though the goals had been lowered to 8 feet from their 10-foot regulation height.

Compared with traditional basketball, wheelchair basketball offers less space on the court to move and dribble. Players must dribble the ball at least once after touching their wheels twice.

“It’s hard to get out of people’s way,” said Natalie Ammerman, a fifth-grader at Green Hope Elementary. “My arms got sore.”

The first of the games, which lasted 15 minutes, ended with the teams having more turnovers than points. The first two-point score came with 4:52 left in the game, which ended 4-2.

The game reminded referee Miles Hill, of Durham, of his first time playing wheelchair basketball three years ago.

“The first time I got the ball in a game, I traveled,” said Hill, 14, who has spinal cord issues.

“You have to pass the ball more and figure out how to play together,” he said. “It’s really more of a team game” than traditional basketball.

Learning to succeed

Players gained confidence throughout the day as they got used to the wheelchairs. For Mike Atkins, a coach from Bridge II Sports who refereed games, it reminded him of what he went through after a car accident rendered him paraplegic in 1988.

“When you first get hurt, there are a lot of things you think you can’t do anymore,” Atkins said. “But you can. You might do it differently now, but you can do it.”

Ryan Stines, the co-founder, came to the same conclusion after last year’s event.

“No matter your disadvantages or disabilities,” he said. “You can still succeed as well as people without them.”

Specht: 919-460-2608;

Twitter: @AndySpecht

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer