Physically challenged find outlet for hoop dreams

Regional shootout gives competitive a chance to shine

January 14, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Larry Toler threw up an air ball at the buzzer yesterday, leaving his Maryland Ravens wheelchair basketball team tied at 43 with Air Capital from Washington.

He made up for it in overtime, however, converting two foul shots - both of them nothing but net - to lead his team to a 48-43 victory in the first game of the Baltimore Wheelchair Shootout at Milford Mill Academy in Randallstown.

The round-robin tournament, which attracted about 75 players and spectators, was the brainchild of Mike Naugel, Toler's coach and a Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks official who runs a Tuesday night wheelchair league in the metropolitan area.

"This provides an opportunity for our players to compete at a higher level than our recreation league teams," he said. "These other guys play a set schedule in a real league."

Two teams from Philadelphia - the 76ers, sponsored by the Magee Rehabilitation Center, and the Temple University Owls - joined the Ravens and Air Capital in yesterday's tournament. Physical therapists from Maryland General Hospital's Bryn Mawr Rehab Center ran the scorers' table.

Many of the players have been disabled by injuries, others by disease. Some have lost limbs and have prostheses, and others walk with the help of braces or crutches.

Toler, 42, had polio when he was a child. He tried to play "stand-up basketball," wearing leg braces without much success, he said. But 20 years ago a friend from his rehabilitation work at a Baltimore hospital got him into a wheelchair league. "With wheelchair basketball, you get out there and play," he said. "It's no longer about `the chair.' It's competitive, you have that zeal going through you. And whether you win or lose, you got to play."

The game is played mostly by National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. An offensive player can be in the foul lane four seconds instead of three, and there is no double-dribble rule. Instead, players may hold the ball in their laps for three "pushes" of the wheels before they must dribble again.

Because everyone's sitting down, there isn't much of a battle for rebounds, but the game gives new meaning to the basketball phrase "pick and roll."

Early in the first half of the Ravens-Air Capital game, Palacios and Christopher Leavitt rolled their chairs in front of Toler to cut him off as Jermaine Hodges slid down the lane for an easy basket.

After a basket, the Ravens' Robert Tucker held Leavitt at Air Capital's end of the court, matching twists and turns, as teammates spun to the other basket.

Leavitt, 17, plays with abandon, scrambling for loose balls, rolling over in his chair and pulling himself back up.

Born with spina bifida, he couldn't play on his school teams, he said. Then he discovered wheelchair basketball. "I'm not the best shot on the team, but I can set the picks, I can pick up my game and do the best for my teammates," he said. "I love basketball."

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