For Lewis, basketball becomes therapy Wheelchair game helps him cope with injury

February 07, 1993|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Staff Writer

For Keith Lewis, basketball has been more than just a game.

As a youngster, Lewis preferred wrestling, but after suffering a serious spinal cord injury in 1981, he eventually turned to wheelchair basketball.

"The first couple years, just being around the other guys in chairs not only helped me deal with a new type of life itself, but seeing others and how they've done things helped, too. If I saw another guy doing something, I knew I could do it, too," said Lewis, 36.

"When you're out there with 10 other guys in chairs, you're not thinking about wheelchairs. It's like I'm there, like I'm playing basketball."

In November 1981 after Lewis fell off an 18-foot ladder, jTC basketball was the furthest thing from his mind.

He and his father were building a house in Churchville when the ladder collapsed. Always an active youngster, Lewis had graduated into the family business, Lewis Construction, after playing football, wrestling and running track at Bel Air High School.

Five months after the accident, Lewis got out of the hospital. But not until November 1982 did he see his first wheelchair basketball game.

"My injury was still relatively new when I went into a gymnasiuand saw 50 or 60 guys in wheelchairs there. I felt sick to my stomach and I almost turned around and left, but I had a friend with me. I'm glad I stayed," he said.

A year later, he decided to play. Lewis, who was born and still lives in Forest Hill, quickly excelled.

In 1987, he played on the U.S. National Team that won a gold medal in England at the Stoke-Manville Games, a predecessor of the Para-Olympics. It was the first time the United States had won the gold medal in 17 years.

For the past 10 years, Lewis has played for the Baltimore Wheelchair Athletic Club, which includes one other Harford County resident, Malcolm Whyte.

Two weeks ago, Lewis earned Most Valuable Player honors in the Capital Conference Tournament at Aberdeen High. He scored 24 points in a semifinal 57-41 victory over Richmond and 11 in a 62-51 loss to top-seeded Virginia Beach.

BWAC, ranked 22nd in the nation, finished second in the tournament but still advances to the regional playoffs in two weeks.

Like the NCAA, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association seeds teams in several regions with the winners advancing on -- eventually to the final four. Lewis said BWAC, which won its regional last year, most likely will end up in the Toledo region.

A Capital Conference All-Star since 1986, Lewis continues to be a top player in the fast-paced, hard-hitting game. He only wishes the game had a few more fans.

"If people could just not look at it as wheelchair basketball, and look at it like high school or college basketball -- good, quality entertainment basketball," said Lewis. "People who come to the games say they had some reservations about coming, but they enjoy it once they get there."

The rules are similar to college basketball with a 45-second shot clock and a five-second lane violation.

For Lewis, the strategy is to get downcourt as quickly as possible and set up just outside the lane to take the pass and bank it in. But that's not always easy, because the opposition is always out to stop him.

"They try to hold me back any way they can," said Lewis, who sometimes gets hung up at midcourt by a couple of defenders.

If he can't get in position fast enough, Lewis has to rely on his teammates to set picks. He can roll off those picks to the basket as well as anybody, and his teammates are always looking for him.

During the season, from September to March, BWAC practices twice a week at Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County. On weekends, Lewis is often on the road traveling the Maryland-Virginia-D.C. area for games.

Some Saturdays, Lewis and his wife, Vivian, watch their 11-year-old son Jeff play a recreation game, and then the family heads to Lewis' afternoon game.

Lewis, who now works in the office at Lewis Construction, doesn't mind the hectic pace.

"The game, for me, is a physical release. I used to work outside doing physical labor and I can't do that now, so basketball helps take the place of that."

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