Jay Paul photo
There's a specific cacophony of noises that punctuate a game of wheelchair basketball: it's the occasional squeal of wheels on the court and a clatter of metal on metal.
On a Tuesday night in early April, the region's sole wheelchair basketball team, the Richmond RimRiders, show what the noise is all about during a three-on-three pickup game at the city's Humphrey Calder Recreational Center, where the group practices each week. Strapped into their "quickie" chairs — made of aluminum or titanium, with a set of five different-sized wheels to prevent tip-overs — the men peel around the court, calling for passes or shouting defensive cues to teammates. When the action moves close to the hoop, the bodies and chairs clash in direct contact. As one player, Stan Corn, moves to shoot, defender Mickey Morin throws his blocking arm high, tipping his chair up on one wheel to extend his reach. ( above )
The wheelchair-basketball program is organized by the local nonprofit Sportable, which promotes adaptive sports. In March, the RimRiders capped off their competitive season, which started in October, with a visit to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association's U.S. championships.
The Richmond crew was knocked out of the tournament after only three games, a disappointing showing that team captain Ike Cook ( pictured left in white ) seemed to characterize weeks later when he was describing the team's suddenly sloppy pickup game. "We're normally a lot better than this," he said as he inbounded a pass. "We just can't seem to prove it."
For now, the RimRiders are an eight-player co-ed team, though they're constantly looking for new recruits.
"You don't have to have a disability that will put you in a chair," explains Matthew Deans ( pictured right ), who walks and has restricted use of his legs. However, if an athlete has any disability that would prevent them from playing basketball normally, he says, they're eligible to join in.
The sport has its roots in the U.S. Veterans Administration's hospital system; in the late 1940s, disabled World War II vets adapted basketball for the wheelchair to get active and stay healthy. Today, the sport still proves a ready outlet for service-wounded vets, among others, which is why about half of Richmond's crew are ex-military.
One of those vets, team captain Ike Cook, holds seniority in both age and court time; the 62-year-old has played the game since 1970, about as long as fellow player Jimmy May. Corn, Morin and Steve Edgar all started in the 1980s. Brand new to the squad is 27-year-old Jamon Freeman. The squad has one woman, Penny Hardison, who occasionally drives in from Charlottesville.
Deans, also 27, jokes that because most of his teammates are older — the next youngest player is 40-year-old Morin — he spent his first two years being called "rookie."
While the sport follows standard NCAA rules, there are several exceptions to accommodate the wheelchair. The sport has separate divisions based on the different disabilities athletes bring to the court, which are classified by how much muscle function a player has from the chest down.
Edgar, who has total paralysis of his lower torso and below, is a Class I player. When he came to the sport in 1985, he says, there was a factor of intimidation. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to get out and look like an idiot," he says. At the outset, his strength and skill were minimal: "I could throw the ball up and hit the bottom of the net."
Freeman, the team's new rookie, admits that he's now at that point, despite previous wheelchair-basketball experience at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. He says he's trying to build enough endurance to get his chair up and down the court during a game. "I'm stumbling a little bit," he says, "but I'm starting to get the game back."