Constable: This DuPage wheelchair basketball team is still in the hunt for basketball glory
Cruising through the state tournament and winning the championship game 43-38 in double overtime gives these players confidence headed into next weekend's national basketball championship tournament in Wichita, Kansas.
"I expect the tourney to be harder, but we could win all of them. We just have to play really hard," says Jonathan Parris, a 14-year-old from Elburn, playing his first year with the varsity of the Synergy Jr Bulls, a coed wheelchair basketball team of the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association.
"The highest-ranked teams are really good, but I also feel they aren't as far out of reach as everyone thinks," says Drew Beutel, 15, of Naperville, whose dad, John Beutel, is an assistant coach for the team.
"We all believe in ourselves," says Tessa Pate of Lombard, who at 12 years old is the Jr Bulls' youngest member and one of two girls on the team. "I feel like if we all work together, we can win."
The Jr Bulls played some of the nation's top teams and led the No. 1 team in the nation for six minutes during a tournament in Tennessee last month, says coach Curtis Lease of Naperville, an All-American during his four years on the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball team. A member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association's Intercollegiate Division Hall of Fame, and a player on the U.S. Sitting Volleyball team in the 2000 and 2004 Paralympic Games, Lease still holds the record in the college national tournament by grabbing 45 rebounds in three games during the 1991 tourney.
Pick-and-rolls, give-and-go passing, spacing, positioning, shooting, defense and speed are integral to the team's success.
"They've grown so much," Lease says of the team that recorded just one win a few seasons ago, and now has a 20-11 record and is ranked 14th in the nation. "It's because they developed their skills and just became better basketball players."
As is the case with most players, twins Matthew and Jeffrey Birnbaum, 17, who live in Clarendon Hills and go to Hinsdale Central High School, played on the prep squad as grade-schoolers before reaching the varsity level.
"Everybody gets along. You're a player here. Let's get everyone involved in passing. Nobody's selfish," Jeffrey Birnbaum says.
"I believe in this team," Matthew Birnbaum says. "We will do some great things in this tournament."
The wheelchairs, which are specially designed for speed and have the wheels at an angle to prevent tipping, can be adjusted so that 6-foot-2 center Joe Casado, 18, of Joliet, still has the upper body height and reach to be a force on the boards. At 5 feet, Nellie Meinhardt, 13, of Bartlett, has her wheelchair lower for more speed.
"I'm probably one of the smallest people in the game," Meinhardt says.
"That is where the chair skills come in," Lease says, explaining how players can grab rebound positions, set effective picks and free up teammates for shots if they know how to maneuver their wheelchairs.
Pate still remembers the first basket she made during a game.
"I was the only one open," she says, noting the older boys aren't afraid to feed her the ball. "I still have the video."
NBA players often miss shots when they are tired because they don't have the spring in their legs. These athletes in wheelchairs hit free throws and even 3-pointers while sitting down and relying solely on the strength in their arms. The wheelchairs are almost more than a piece of athletic equipment.
"It's like a natural part of your body," Parris says.
One of the challenges players face is getting back up after their wheelchair gets knocked over during the physical game.
"It's an athletic skill you have to develop," says Lease, noting that his players "would run circles" around a group of able-bodied basketball players playing in wheelchairs for the first time.
Playing wheelchair basketball since he discovered it during a hospital visit when he was 5 years old, Drew Beutel remembers how that experience paid off when Synergy brought wheelchair basketball to his peers at Crone Middle School in Naperville.
"They're all able-bodied, but when they get in the chair they don't know what to do," Beutel says. "I'm faster than them."
The lone senior on the team, Casado has committed to playing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the fall. Other players also hope to play in college.
Lease, who had a leg amputated as a toddler and walks without an aid thanks to his prosthetic leg, played standing basketball in pickup games when he learned that he was eligible to play wheelchair basketball at Illinois, where the game began as a sport for disabled veterans returning home after World War II. The first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament was organized in 1948 by Tim Nugent at the University of Illinois.
"You don't have to be in a wheelchair every day to play wheelchair basketball," Lease says. To be eligible, a player must have "a permanent physical disability that consistently reduces the function of the lower limbs to a degree where they cannot run, pivot or jump at the speed and with the control, safety, stability and endurance required to play running basketball as an able-bodied player."
Some of the Jr Bulls walk most of the time, and use a wheelchair only for longer trips. Some wheelchair players also have issues with their arms because of movement disorders such as cerebral palsy.
"You just learn to adapt," Lease says.
And it's not all about basketball skills and victories.
"I put stickers on my chair and he copied it," Pate says, laughing as she points out a teammate who vows that the stickers were his idea. "We all get along even with our different genders and ages. We're a very joking team."
But once the tournament starts, they have serious goals.
"I'm very competitive," Beutel says.
That spirit can be found among athletes at every basketball tournament.
"They are not disabled athletes," Lease says of his players. "They are athletes with a disability."