Clearing the tables, sitting down

October 20, 1994|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- In his moments of fantasy, Andre Scott is Maryland basketball star Joe Smith, leaping and shooting and dunking.

"I so admire these guys," said Scott. "Just once, I'd like to hang from the rim."

Scott, a team statistician, is in Cole Field House, watching Smith and other Terps in a pickup game. Only they will hang from the rim.

Scott is in a wheelchair, and has been for 15 years, since he was 14. It was then he was diagnosed as having bilateral chondrilosis, a degeneration of the hip joints. He will get neither better nor worse.

"I'm the way I'm going to be," he said.

But Scott can do something Smith can't -- play a mean game of table tennis. He once spotted Smith nine points and thrashed him, 11-9.

"Before we started, I was confident I could beat him," Smith said. "At the end, my confidence was gone."

Scott, a junior, is the captain and No. 3 player on Maryland's club team that has won two straight national collegiate championships.

Another Terps basketball player, Exree Hipp, witnessed Scott's demolition of Smith that day, intending to play Scott himself.

"I thought I was pretty good, and I knew Joe was even better, so I thought beating Andre would be easy," Hipp said. "But the way he moves in that wheelchair is incredible. It goes to show just because you're in a wheelchair, it doesn't mean you can't do things."

When Hipp saw what Scott did to Smith, he decided not to challenge him.

USA Wheelchair Sports historians say Scott is the only wheelchair athlete in any sport to compete against able-bodied players in a national collegiate championship. In the nationals, which attracted 200 players from 40 teams last March at Princeton, Scott had a 12-2 record.

"Andre was in the top 10 there," said Larry Hodges, Maryland's coach and the director of the National Table Tennis Center in Rockville. "Opponents are leery of playing a guy in a wheelchair. It's a no-win situation. . . . They feel they should be able to win. Most don't."

A new season will start late next month, and Maryland's four-man team will play in tournaments throughout the winter, ending with the nationals in April at Annapolis.

Among the more than 1,000 ranked U.S. players, Scott is in the top 150. Among wheelchair players, he has won four national singles titles.

In December, he will go to Las Vegas for tryouts for the U.S. wheelchair teams that will compete in the world championships and Pan American Games next year. Scott finished 13th in the worlds in 1990, but had a "nightmarish" Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992.

Today, however, Scott says there is only one wheelchair player in the world "who can push me." That is Mike Dempsey of Camarillo, Calif., whom he beat in the Olympic Sports Festival in St. Louis in July. Lifetime, Scott says, "we're about even."

It was Dempsey who helped Scott turn his life around. When he was in his early 20s, Scott still was depressed at the prospect of using a wheelchair for the rest of his life and squandered his time drinking and watching television.

"I didn't like myself or anyone else," Scott said. "I was in the hospital for a year, laying on my back. I was drowning my sorrows because there was nothing else to do.

"Mike showed me there was more to life. I didn't realize I could go to college, drive a car, own a house. I didn't have a role model until I met Mike, because there was no one in a wheelchair I could look up to."

Dempsey, who owns a wheelchair company, met Scott six years ago at a tournament in New York. His first impression was that Scott was a talented player who, if his energies were channeled in the right direction, could extend the boundaries of his life beyond table tennis. Dempsey urged him to go to college.

"We hit it off from the start, and our friendship has grown," Dempsey said. "He was a young guy who needed direction, and table tennis gave it to him. But you don't want to stop with table tennis; by going to college, you learn things that carry over into later life."

Scott, who came to Maryland from Elizabeth, N.J., is majoring in kinesiology. He has wheelchairs for tennis, table tennis and basketball in addition to one for everyday use. His table tennis chair is not very comfortable, but keeps him erect for better shot-making.

Scott laughs when talking about how able-bodied players react when they are confronted by him.

"It's tough for them," Scott said. "They have nothing to compare me to and don't know how I play.

"They can't believe my serve is so good, and they have a hard time figuring out what they can do to beat me. All of this is to my advantage. They don't want to lose to a guy in a wheelchair."

At the South Bend (Ind.) Tournament last spring, Scott handily defeated a player from Texas.

After the match, the frustrated Texan told Scott, "They should warn people about you."

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