From the bleachers in the Radford Rec Center, 600 elementary students were screaming “Go Bobcats!” as the Charlottesville Cardinals, the Roanoke Stars Wheelchair Basketball League and elementary school teachers in tipped-wheeled chairs designed to spin and stop on a dime zoomed up and down the court playing basketball together to demonstrate the immense capabilities of differently abled people and the power of perseverance and teamwork.
“Thirteen percent of the school population has a disability,“ said Dave Sable, executive director of student services in Radford. “This is an opportunity for increased awareness and realization that people with disabilities work hard and live full lives.”
By the end of the first quarter, fifth and sixth graders ran onto the court to sub for tired teachers.
Sixth grader Maggie Page leapt into a chair and charged down the court.
“She’s good friends with Parker Burgard,” Maggie’s mom and fifth-grade teacher, Stacy Page, said.
Parker, a kindergartener in Mrs. Eagle’s class at McHarg, who uses a wheelchair, is a good part of the reason these teams are here.
Parker’s mom Nichole Burgard as well as Angie McCauley and B’easy Thompson of the Parent Educator Resource Center wrote a grant to bring the teams to Radford for the day.
“Parker and his family have gone to watch some of the games before, so they were our connection to the team. The games are certainly a motivating factor for Parker and we thought his peers and other kids who have disabilities would benefit from this,” McCauley said.
“I can say it was very difficult,” she said. “And it really made you understand the upper body strength it takes to shoot the ball without the momentum of your legs. They made it look easy.”
Brandon Rush, Charlottesville Cardinals captain, has been with the team since 1997. Dreadlocks flying, he demonstrated as coach Tom Vandever explained the rules of wheelchair basketball to cheering children, how to dribble and push your wheels, that the game wheelchairs are specially built with bars to protect your feet in the full-body sport, and small wheels in back to prevent tipping over.
“But it’s a rough game, and sometimes,” he said. “But teammates are there to help get you back on your wheels.”
And that was a message throughout the day.
When Rush was 14, the team came to the children’s hospital where he was recovering, but losing his ability to walk. That’s where he was introduced to wheelchair basketball.
“One of my goals to get better was to play wheelchair basketball,” he said. “Believe it or not, I’m better in the wheelchair.”
Rush said staying active is what you have to do when you have a disability.
“The more active you are, the better your health,” he said
And active he is. The Charlottesville resident coaches adult teams on Sunday and kids on Monday. He also drives to Harrisonburg to coach some more.
Using basketball, a familiar and wildly energetic team sport, the team educates the community about people with disabilities. This is their twelfth demonstration this month.
“Our focus is that, when people first see us, they first see the wheelchair. After a few minutes, the wheelchair fades away and they see the athletes and they leave remembering the athlete, not the guy with the disability,” Rush said.
Rush is on staff with the Independence Resource Center (Vandever is the executive director), a center dedicated to promoting independent living for all people.
He said that before his accident, like a lot of people, he was shy with people with disabilities.
“I didn’t know how to interact,” he said.
“Don’t be afraid. Just ask. It’s better than staring.”
And people do ask about his life. He talks about his family and his 13-year-old son.
“I was at his basketball game last night, as a matter of fact. I have a regular life. Kids. Basketball. Bills. Everything,” he said.
Wheelchair basketball is a worldwide sport. There are two hundred teams in the US—many launching from veterans’ hospitals in an effort as much by patients as by and doctors to keep people moving.
The game began following WWII. Many players were athletes first, but others, like Rush, became athletes after injury.
“If you can think of a sport, it’s been adapted,” Vandever said.
There are university-level adaptive sports teams and scholarships and the game is continually innovating and evolving. The Cardinals’ players wear belts around their ankles or torsos for stability.
Those straps are from a snowboard. Somebody just took them off and attached them to a wheelchair.
“It’s always innovating looking for a little more energy,” Rush said.
In the morning, the Cardinals had played with Radford University players and even coach Bob Jones.
“They scored off the charts,” McCauley said. “And they were flying up and down the court.
The teams visited Radford High School in the morning and the Radford Recreation Center in the afternoon. Students from kindergarten through high school attended.
“We are hoping that, after the event, students will view people in wheelchairs with the mindset of what they “can do” not what they “can’t do,” McCauley said.
“It’s not as hard as it looks,” Rush said, laughing. “Just push around and go for it!”
For more information about the Cardinals visit www. cardinalsbasketball.com.