The Oregonian: Portland wheelchair basketball team competes in national championship
Author: Rebecca Koffman, Special to The Oregonian
Posted: April 4, 2014

Read the original story here in The Oregonian.

The national championship for wheelchair basketball began on Thursday in Louisville, Ky., and for the first time, a junior team from Oregon will be among the competitors.

The Junior Wheelblazers sent eight boys and girls, age 10 to 18, whose first game went to overtime Thursday and ended in a nail-biter 47-43 loss. Two games are scheduled for Friday.

“We’re 17th in the rankings; the top 32 teams make it to nationals,” said team coordinator Carly Schmidt of Oregon Disability Sports. The team’s season record is 9 wins and 9 losses.

The players, from all over Oregon and Southwest Washington, practice together once a week for three hours at Portland State University. At a recent practice, coaches Laura Ridler and Stacy Marshall ran blocking and shooting drills before overseeing a scrimmage game.

It was fast and noisy. Wheels clashed and squeaked. Players tilted precariously on one wheel, occasionally tipping over and then quickly righting themselves. Eighteen-year-old Josh Brewer, one of the most experienced players, moved so fast and forcefully that his chair sometimes rose off the ground completely before crashing down.

The rules for wheelchair basketball are much the same as for basketball. The court is the same size, and players are penalized for traveling. If a player touches his or her wheels more than twice without bouncing the ball, he or she is in violation of the rules.

“The rhythm is push, push, dribble,” said assistant coach Stacy Marshall. “It took me a while to get used to that.”

How did the kids feel about going to the National Championships?

“We can’t wait!,” said Lindsey Zerbrugg, 15, who’s in her first year on the team.

“I played lots of basketball before I got paralyzed a year and a half ago,” she said. “Afterwards, I realized I was wasting my life in front of the TV. This was better.”

The kids are in wheelchairs for varying reasons: spina bifida, accidents, cancer. But all of them relish the opportunities to meet others with similar life experiences.

“My friends were all doing sports. I felt left out, “ said Ezra Gabbert, 15, who has been on the team for three years. “Then I found this.”

His mother, Lesley Crowe, said team members are learning about competition and camaraderie.

“Ezra knew nothing about basketball when he started,” Crowe said, “but now there’s a feeling of, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’”

The kids were to fly to Kentucky in their everyday wheelchairs. They planned to gate check their specially outfitted basketball chairs, to ensure that they didn’t get damaged in the hold.

The lightweight basketball chairs have sloping wheels, a small central stability wheel and no brakes. They cost about $3,000 each. But Oregon Disability Sports, whose mission is to promote recreational and competitive opportunities for people with physical disabilities, has chairs to lend players if necessary.

Head coach Laura Ridler has led the team for three years as a volunteer. She’s a recreation therapist by trade.

“I love sports, I played basketball myself in college, and teenagers are a lot of fun,” Ridler said.

She runs a tight ship, kids are expected to show up at practice, maintain a decent GPA and be committed to the team.

One of her goals for the team when she began coaching was that one day they’d make it to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Championships. Three years later, they have. 

Learn more
To learn more about wheelchair basketball or other adaptive sports opportunities in Oregon:
2125 N. Flint Ave
Portland, OR 97227

-- Rebecca Koffman