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Basketball tournament raises awareness of wheelchair athletes

  • Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at 8:57 p.m.

Chairs banged, blisters formed, arms burned.

Playing basketball in a wheelchair isn’t for the weak.

Neither is getting through a normal day in one.

Non-wheelchair-bound competitors found that out Saturday at the fourth annual Wheelchair Basketball Bash at Wichita Collegiate School, 9115 E. 13th St. The event was sponsored by the nonprofit American Collegiate Society for Adapted Athletics founded by Spartan senior Rob Egan.

Egan said he has had classmates tell him they can barely drive home after his tournament because it’s hard to raise their arms to the steering wheel.

“They say, ‘Gosh, now I realize how much energy it takes you to get through the day,’ ” said Egan, who has a form of cerebral palsy.

The event is held to raise awareness that wheelchair-bound people can compete in sports, and to raise money for college adapted sports programs.

The tournament is growing. Saturday’s event drew 14 teams, doubling last year’s field. Teams came from Collegiate, Andover, Andover Central, and the Independent School.

The tournament featured able-bodied athletes competing against disabled athletes, with all of the athletes competing in wheelchairs. It lasted all day, and was followed by a dinner sponsored by Abuelo’s, a silent auction, and a custard bar sponsored by Freddy’s Frozen Custard.

“It was really fun to see how it all works from Rob’s perspective,” said Dakota Johnson, a high school senior from Las Vegas and a member of Egan’s team.

Johnson met Egan at a Boys Nation conference in Washington, D.C., and came to Wichita for the tournament.

“I give props to people like Rob who go out and play stuff like this, because it’s difficult,” he said.

“The thing that I marvel at is that without using your legs, your instincts want you to move like you do on a basketball court regularly,” said Trent Nesmith, dean of students at Collegiate who played on the school’s faculty wheelchair team. “But it’s difficult to shoot and also to pass. You can’t lead anybody like you would in a regular game. You have to throw it right to them. And when the ball’s on the ground, you want to reach for it, but you can’t.”

Grady Landrum, president of Wheelchair Sports Inc., which supplied 10 of the sport wheelchairs for the tournament as well as one of the teams, said the event helps non-wheelchair-bound people become aware of what people with disabilities can do in sports.

“Some of them are tired, their shoulders hurt, their arms hurt, they get blisters on their hands. But they seem to have a good time,” Landrum said. “They realize it’s not easy. They continue to try to throw passes to each other like they’re standing up and they can move, particularly laterally. And they can’t do that in a wheelchair.”

Wheelchair Sports puts on recreational activities to promote a healthy lifestyle for people with disabilities, Landrum said, so Egan’s tournament is in line with its goals.

Last year, Egan’s organization raised about $30,000, including $12,000 from the basketball bash. The money is to sponsor tournaments for fully wheelchair-bound college athletes, and to help build new programs for colleges that don’t have such teams.

Interest is growing nationally. At a conference in New Orleans in July, Egan set up a booth to present the idea behind his organization, and it drew a flood of visitors for two hours, he said.

“To me it was a tell-tale sign that there really is a market out there,” he said.

More proof came when he got a call from the University of Alabama asking him to help sponsor a national wheelchair basketball tournament in Birmingham. Egan will leave for Birmingham in March to do that.

He may have found his calling.

“I’d love to do this,” he said. “This is what I’m passionate about. This is what I love.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or at fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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