A shot glanced off the rim, bounced momentarily toward the ceiling, then fell gently toward the floor. From rim to hands, the rebound hung in the air for only a moment, two seconds at the most.
As the basketball fell, the gym echoed. The squeak of rubber against hardwood mixed with the grind of metal against metal, and in the scramble for position, a wheelchair flipped backward. A man who couldn’t stand on his own was left lying flat on his back, his legs still strapped to the chair.
Next moment, a fast break was heading the other way. A referee walked next to the fallen player, but barely glanced his direction and never offered so much as a hand. Only after a foul was called did the action stop and two players wheeled down court to help their teammate back onto his wheels.
Upright, the player never left the game, and players asking whether he was all right seemed to be doing so simply out of courtesy.
The game had to go on, just like everything else.
It had to go on for Tom Cox, who worked himself into a wheelchair when he was trying to work himself through college.
It had to go on for Jason Otto, who made the biggest mistake of his life, crashed his car and broke his back.
It had to go on for Kevin Reynolds, who was a teenager working on a dairy farm when he was trapped beneath a fallen tree and confined to a seat with tires.
“Some people can never deal with the accident,” Reynolds said. “And some people take it and move right on with it.”
Wheelchair basketball has been part escape and part continuation, part competition and part camaraderie.
The Scranton Allied Forces have been common ground for six teammates from different cities and with varying degrees of disability.
It’s been common ground on which to gain a little extra traction. Common ground on which to keep moving forward.
Common ground on which it’s OK to fall, as long as you get back up.
Eighteen years old, working 16-hour shifts to make enough money so that he wouldn’t have to work through college.
Cox’s body was too weak to fight the spinal meningitis.
Twenty-one years old, driving drunk when his car flipped and tossed him to the roadside.
Otto was lucky to be alive.
Seventeen years old, cutting firewood along a creek to make a little extra money.
Reynolds was pinned beneath a rolling pine tree.
“It took a few months to sink in that this is the way life’s going to be from now on,” Reynolds said.
To hear the team tell it, it’s the sinking in part that’s key. There has to be some level of acceptance. Not acceptance of limitations, only acceptance of reality.
No more denial. No more self-pity. No more asking the world to stop so that someone can flip you upright.
“There are a lot of people in our area in wheelchairs who just sit at home because, to them, their life is over,” Cox said.
He would know. Cox is 37, he’s been paralyzed for 19 years and he works at Allied Services, the Scranton rehabilitation center that sponsors the Allied Forces. He’s seen some patients give up, and he’s seen some others fight back.
Teammate Sherri Ayers did both.
Through tennis leagues, bowling leagues and even a professional softball league in New Jersey, 46-year-old
Ayers spent two decades as an ultra-competitive, able-bodied athlete.
In 1998, though, reflex sympathetic dystrophy largely cost her the use of her right leg.
“You figure it’s the end of your life,” Ayers said. “I was in total depression before I started this.”
That was before. This is now.
The drive from her home in Effort takes Ayers an hour. She makes the trip every Wednesday, six months a year, for practice at Johnson College.
“If they did it year round and just had practice, I’d still come every week,” she said.
Reynolds and Qassem Al-Nadi drive to practice from Binghamton, Lonnie Thorpe comes into town from Waymart and Otto arrives from Fleetville. Cox has by far the shortest drive. He lives in Dickson City.
Games are on Saturdays. Most Mid Atlantic Conference games are within a two-hour drive. Tournaments range from Connecticut to Virginia.
Vans are quickly filled with players, coaches, day-to-day chairs and specially designed basketball chairs.
“A good road trip,” Thorpe called it.
Back at Western Wayne, 41-year-old Thorpe was a wrestler and football player. Otto, 35, played football and baseball at Lackawanna Trail. Cox was a basketball player at Scranton Central.
Reynolds is the only one of the group who didn’t play sports in high school. Now 47, he started playing wheelchair basketball after a friend asked him to give it a shot in the early ’80s, a few years after his 1977 accident.
For Al-Nadi, wheelchair basketball isn’t a return to the familiar or a taste of something new.
It’s the only life he’s ever known.
Born in Jordan in 1965, 41-year-old Al-Nadi was born disabled. He can shuffle along on crutches, basically carrying himself with his upper body, but his legs won’t support his weight on their own.
As a kid, he learned to play handball, and as an adult, he finished a marathon with his hands bleeding at the finish. He’s played wheelchair basketball for San Diego City College and for the Jordanian national team.
“Basically I felt that (disability) was the hand I got dealt and that the life I wanted to live was to be involved in sports,” Al-Nadi said. “That’s the reason I drive all the way to Scranton. My motivation is it’s something I want to do, something inside of me.”
Twenty years ago, Thorpe was in a car that crashed into a telephone pole. The impact, and the fact he was wearing a seat belt that only went across his lap, broke a vertebra in Thorpe’s back.
That’s the reason he felt no pain last year and initially had no idea anything was wrong, when during a game another chair jumped onto his own, hit his shin and broke his tibia and fibula.
“I’ve done football, wrestling and wheelchair basketball,” Thorpe said. “And it’s all the same.”
It’s fast paced, intense and sometimes brutal. Thumbs are busted, chairs are flipped and players who can’t walk are sent tumbling to the ground.
“You never get used to that really, because you never know,” said Allied Forces coach Jim Batton, who is not disabled. “Like in a football game, when someone goes down, you don’t know how severe it is.
“I’m still scared for them. Especially with six players, we can’t afford to lose one of them.”
This is still a team that, first and foremost, wants to win. They aren’t in the sport to play it safe.
Two younger players, 15-year-old Daniel Rivers of Waymart and 19-year-old Casey Erickson of Clarks Summit occasionally practice and play in home games with the Allied Forces, but they don’t travel with the team.
“I know everyone has good intentions and they’re looking out for me,” Rivers said. “But it’s nice to do something without people saying, ‘Slow down, oh my gosh, I can’t believe he’s doing that.’ ”
After intricate passing drills and full-court layup drills, practice came to a halt and Al-Nadi chased down a loose ball along the sideline.
“Want to see wheelchair bowling?” he asked, turning back toward the court and rolling the ball toward his teammates.
When the ball smacked squarely into Reynolds’ right wheel, Al-Nadi burst out laughing.
“I think it helps to be around people who understand what you’re going through,” he said later. “You develop friendships and long-term relationships with these people. You do need that support. We might not like to see it that way, but there is something to it.”
It’s not all there is to it, but it’s part of it.
“Who else could relate to it other than guys going through the same thing?” Otto said.
When they travel — and they travel often — the Allied Forces eat dinner together, play cards together and check into hotels together. They help one another remove hotel bathroom doors when the doorways aren’t wide enough for the chairs.
It’s those chairs that make the team unique, but it’s hardly the chairs that define the players. Look past the metal and the wheels, and their game is more familiar than unusual.
“If anything, rather than being treated with more help, we just want to be treated as equal,” Cox said.
Everyone falls down at some point. The trick is to deal with the fall, and find a way to get back up.
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