Kids overcome full-court press of a lifetime


March 26, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Claude figures he's found an easy mark.

''A little one-on-one?'' he asks, bouncing a basketball with his right hand and looking like Sergeant Bilko used to look when he'd innocently inquire, ''Oh, is this game called poker?''

''You trying to hustle me?'' I ask.


''You didn't get enough satisfaction the other night?''

''Nope,'' Claude says, and lofts a set shot from somewhere around the free throw line.



''Wanta see it again?'' Claude says.

You might say Claude's on a roll. He slides his wheelchair from left to right, bounces the basketball a few times and launches another rainbow toward the hoop.


''Lucky again,'' I tell him.

Sarcasm is such an inadequate defense.

The other night, Claude and some of his buddies in wheelchairs taught a few of us some lessons about basketball and -- not to make too much of it -- about life.

Claude was born minus an arm and a leg, and he's got a little person's body from the waist down. He's 15 years old now and doing things neither God nor anybody on Earth figured he'd ever do: He's on his way to leading a productive life.

The other night, we had a wheelchair basketball game at Children's Hospital's Bennett Institute. On Claude's team were kids who come to the gymnasium with him several times a week to build up bodies cheated by nature and by circumstance: kids with spina bifida, with cerebral palsy, kids who've had paralyzing accidents.

On my team were some media people, including Ron Matz, the WCAO radio news director, who distinguished himself for several minutes by moving his wheelchair in a series of concentric circles and declaring, ''Is this it? Is this how you move it?'' while the ball whizzed back and forth past his head; and Richard Sher, the television newsman, who forgot everybody else on the team and shot the ball every time he touched it. He scored twice with 27 shots.

The mathematical fact is this: Claude's team won, my team lost, and Claude is still rubbing it in.

What transcends the score is what happened on the court, a kind of fearlessness on the part of kids who once might have been written off.

In one moment, Claude would drive the lane and plow through several wheelchair defenders to score. At the other end of the court, you'd find the basketball in your hands and immediately there would be defenders' hands in your face: kids who didn't see themselves as handicapped but merely as players in a ballgame, just like anybody else.

And once, there was maybe the most beautiful moment of the night. With the score tied late in the game, Claude drove for what looked like an easy score. It was a moment of personal triumph in the making.

But Claude spotted a teammate named Sammy, perched next to the basket. Sammy has spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord protrudes from the spinal column and damages the nervous system.

Claude tossed the ball into Sammy's lap. From the sidelines, where a score of parents had gathered, came cries of ''Get it, Sammy.''

Sammy, arms fluttering, shot at a lowered basket. He missed. Claude got the rebound. He gave it back to Sammy, who shot again. He missed. Claude got the rebound, handed it to Sammy, who shot a third time.


The place erupted.

Each of us measures triumph and tragedy with different barometers. For parents along the sidelines, watching their kids play basketball goes beyond what they once might have dreamed. Bouncing a ball becomes cause for prayerful thanks. For the kids, it's a sweet taste of life that other youngsters take for granted.

''Most people look at these kids and ask, 'How do they keep going?''' Gwena Herman, coordinator of Physically Challenged Sports Recreation at the Bennett Institute, was saying yesterday. ''But they're kids like every other kid, and they've got the same desires and needs.

''And that's why we stress sports. It's strengthening their bodies, but it's also giving them something to strive for with people in the same situation. Sports gives them things they can accomplish.''

She and her husband, Jerry Herman, director of the program, work with kids daily at the Bennett Institute and elsewhere.

''A lot of the parents,'' Gwena Herman said, ''bring their kids here and don't think they can be independent. They've been doing everything for them their entire lives. The kids have low self-esteem.

''But there's so much these kids can learn to do. We took a boy named Robbie, who has muscular dystrophy, and taught him to ski. He went up in a chairlift and skied down in sitting skis. It's like a sled with a covering, where we taped the poles to his hands and he maneuvered himself down.''

Robbie is 9. The kids in the program range in age from 6 to 16, though they were all teen-agers in last week's wheelchair basketball game.

''You want to try again?'' Claude asks now.

He arches another shot at the basket.


This kid's got a lot of nerve calling himself handicapped.

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