Rolling toward a national title, Athletics play to win 9-year-old Baltimore-based team drives frustrations to the

March 08, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

It has all the makings of a championship season: Out of 200 teams in the nation, they're ranked a lofty 16th. This weekend, they play a sectionals match that could send them to the Final Four, which in turn could lead to the very top -- the national title.

Yet their games fail to draw crowds, the news media largely have ignored the ongoing drama of a 33-5 season, and sneaker companies aren't showering them with sponsorship deals.

But that's the low-stakes world of wheelchair basketball. All you're competing for, after all, is victory over a body gone half-dead and a world turned upside-down.

"All my playing before was just for fun. Now, it's a good way to stay in shape but also to take out my frustrations and aggressions," said Andy Tacka, 26, a member of the Baltimore Wheelchair Athletics Club.

For each of these players -- playing a game in Ottawa, Ontario, that could get them one step closer to the top of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association -- there is, of course, a "before" and an "after."

Jim Leatherman was a 6-year-old boy in Highlandtown, goofing around on the railroad tracks when "it" happened. Ron Shaffer was doing what he loved best, racing a car, when "it" happened. Mr. Tacka was riding a motorcycle, Malcolm Whyte was chopping trees and hauling timber, Wayne Beachy was a Marine in a vehicle that overturned, Keith Lewis was on an 18-foot ladder that collapsed.

And that is the cruel irony of it all: Often, it is the most physical of people who tend to suffer traumatic injuries that result in paralysis or amputation. They're the ones who are out there at risk of "one day, you're taking movement for granted and, the next day, you're disabled," as Mr. Whyte, 26, puts it.

But on the basketball court, they cease being "disabled" in the sense that they are no different from anyone else in the game. It's one of the few places where the playing field is as even as it's going to get.

"If I wasn't involved in this . . . well, it just makes me feel a lot better about myself," said Mr. Beachy, 36, of Middle River. "Besides, it's fun."

For Mr. Leatherman, the captain and co-founder of the 9-year-old team, sports had been the only way that a double-amputee child could be a part of the regular-kid world.

"When I came home from the hospital in 1966, kids weren't sure how to deal with someone like me," said Mr. Leatherman, who lives in Perry Hall and works as a special assistant to the director of Social Security at Woodlawn. "It was through sports that I got to relate to other kids.

"One day, the other kids were playing baseball like they always did, and I finally got asked to play. They asked me to play catcher, of course. A foul tip hit me right between the eyes and knocked me out. I said I didn't want to play that position anymore, and they said, 'OK smarty, where do you think you can play?' I said I wanted to be pitcher."

A star was born. Young Jim had stronger arms than anyone else from having to wheel himself around, and his fastballs blurred right by the hitters. "I went from not being picked for teams one day to, the next day, kids getting into fights over who would get me," he recalls.

Today, at 31, he remains a remarkable athlete and has played on gold medal-winning Olympic teams in his sport of wheelchair basketball.

And make no mistake: This is a sport and these players want to win. One of the more irksome attitudes that the players have to deal with is people who don't consider this a "real" sport. It is a fast and furious and wincingly rough-and-tumble one, judging from the team's final home practice Thursday night before they left for Ottawa.

With powerfully muscled arms, the players propelled their wheelchairs up and down the court of the Herring Run Middle School gymnasium, swiveling this way and that, crashing and often overturning as they scrambled for shots and rebounds. Just about the only thing missing is the slam dunk, since the hoops are set at the same, 10-foot regulation height that Michael Jordan plays at.

They abide by NCAA rules, with only a few modifications: "Traveling" is if you push your wheels more than twice without dribbling in between. Players get five seconds, rather than the usual three seconds, in the lane to shoot, Mr. Leatherman said, and scores tend to average around the 60- to 70-point range, much like college games.

Although they practice two nights a week for a couple of hours and make frequent trips to other cities for games, most of the players are active in other sports as well, with skiing the current favorite. And their ties as a team have led to networking of all sorts.

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