It would be easy to believe that the winner of the March 31 wheelchair basketball game between a team of veterans from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a veteran team of ballers from the National Rehabilitation Hospital was irrelevant.
It also would be wrong.
True, the match-up at American University’s Bender Arena, sponsored by the AU chapter of Pi Kappa Phi, raised close to $4,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project and Push America, the fraternity’s national charity that supports people with disabilities.
But to gloss over the intense competition on the court would miss the meaning at the core of the event. After the final seconds ticked away on the Ambassadors’ 52-42 victory over the nicknameless squad from Walter Reed, both teams were spent.
“It was a great experience, but ultimately losing put a damper on it a bit,” said Lance Cpl. Josh Wege as he rubbed his hands, raw with blisters and cuts from gripping his wheels.
A baseball and football player in high school in southeastern Wisconsin, the 21-year-old Wege has only been playing ball with the Walter Reed team for two months. On October 4, 2009, he lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Shock; pain; loss; anger. Wege was a cauldron of emotions for three months, he said, until he accepted his new reality and moved on with his life.
“I did feel myself trying to put my feet down a few times, but I don’t even miss them now,” he said after the game, his red jersey drenched in sweat. “I like the camaraderie of team sports. You have to work together.”
Walter Reed’s team is a part of the U.S. Paralympic Military Program.
“We want them to be active again no matter what their injury is,” said Heather Campbell, the program’s coordinator. “From there we find athletes that want to pursue sports. [Tonight] definitely helps raise awareness. A lot of people who only hear about the wars on the news might know about the amputees, but they don’t see them getting back to their lives.”
While players come and go with frequency on the Walter Reed team, the Ambassadors have been playing together for years. Most players on the team lost a limb in a car accident or as the result of an act of violence, but they haven’t let their circumstance slow them down. They practice once a week and compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association year-round.
From the outset their chemistry was palpable. On their opening possession Reggie Brown delivered a perfect pass to the streaking Harsh Thatter for a layup. It was 5-0 before Walter Reed scored, and the Ambassadors never relinquished the lead.
“The guys were a little nervous at the beginning,” said Lance Cpl. Justin Nathaniel Knowles, one of Walter Reed’s most experienced players. Playing in an arena the size of Bender was a thrill for his teammates, but also a first for many of them. “As the game went on we began to get a little confidence back.”
The principles of basketball don’t differ drastically whether the players are in wheelchairs or flying above the rim. Ball movement, spacing, and especially screening are vitally important. The wheelchair variety is a physical brand of ball; players often collide with one another, and it’s not uncommon for someone to be thrown from a chair.
While lateral movement is difficult, the players have mastered angles, and one often is able to deliver a pass to a spot on the court where he knows his teammate will be long before that player arrives.
After a shaky first half Walter Reed trailed by 14. Coach Bill Demby wasn’t happy.
“When the other team pressed, we got scared,” he yelled. “We need to pick it up!”
In the second half, Walter Reed was the team applying the defensive pressure, forcing the Ambassadors into turnover after turnover. With 3:36 left Walter Reed cut the lead to eight, but that would be as close as the game got. Two late buckets sealed the win for the Ambassadors.
When the final buzzer sounded, the players shook hands and smiles abounded all around. National Rehab’s beamed a little brighter than Walter Reed’s.
Technically nothing was riding on the game. There are no standings; personal statistics are meaningless; no one’s playing for a fat guaranteed contract. Or any contract at all.
Yet the players left all they had on the floor. To them feeling the thrill of victory or even, to a lesser extent, the sting of defeat is a blessing.