Scooping & Hooping, On Wheels

nhispokebender%20003.JPGArmando Montez was watching curiously, tentatively, to see if the wheelchair athletes might let him take a few shots — and discover just how tough this sport could be.

Did he ever get his wish. Which was part of the point.

Montez showed up on the Green Tuesday night to watch members of Connecticut’s wheelchair basketball team drive the lane, set picks, make driving lay-ups, and sink three-pointers in an athletic demonstration game. They were scooping and hooping, on wheels, to help mark the 18th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There’s a reason they’re called the Connecticut Connecticut Spokebenders.

nhispokebender%20010.JPGThey used chairs with angled wheels, so they don’t crush knuckles. The chairs strap them in at the waist so they don’t fall out when they tip over (sometimes) or slip when they pirouette and balance on one wheel (amazing!) to reach for a rebound.

The athletes wowed a crowd of friends and passersby, probably none more than Armando Montez.

nhispokebender%20005.JPGBefore the game started, Josh Rodriguez of Waterbury, who’s been in a wheelchair all his life, offered to play a little one-on-one with Armando. When the fifth-grader from Clinton Avenue School in Fair Haven discovered he could drive around Rodriguez neither left nor right, he was impressed.

“They’re good,” he said, a little surprised, “very good. Aggressive.”

Armando hadn’t seen anything yet.

“I learned to play basketball and baseball,” Rodriguez said, “before there was a Spokebenders,” and it showed. When he got the ball, Rodriguez turned on the proverbial dime — no, half a dime — and could pick up the ball from the ground with either hand, to say nothing of having a smooth shot with lots of backspin.

So much so that Armando stayed for the game and got permission to be the official scorekeeper, as Rodriguez teamed up with Kelly Loth on one demonstration team and faced off against New Haven’s own Josh Levine and Mark Tartaglia of Unionville.

Armando’s response was, of course, one of the points: The event, co-sponsored by the city’s Commission on Disabilities and the American Institute of Architects’ Buildings Performance and Regulation committee, was designed, as Kelly Loth said, “for people to understand that we play basketball like anyone else. It’s just a matter of people understanding that we get around like any athlete on the court, only we use wheels instead of feet.”

nhispokebender%20007.JPGAs the game started, Loth showed what she was talking about, driving on the wing, receiving a pass from Rodriguez, turning into the lane and popping in a soft shot. A self-described tomboy — “my sister played with Barbie, but I was all sports all the time” — she was a high school basketball player until age 18. Then she came down with primary lateral sclerosis. “It’s a cousin of Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” she said matter of factly. “I won’t die of it, although my limbs will get weaker.”

Loth said that when she tried out for the Spokebenders, she found she had to overcome a certain prejudice against women athletes, even in wheelchairs. “At first the coaches felt, yes, that even in chairs girls couldn’t play as well as boys. Then, at an away game, the first string guy didn’t show, the second guy got two fouls right away. I came in and scored ten points in ten minutes.”

Her place was secured. She starts on an all-guys team. In Division III of the nationwide wheelchair basketball league there are only six or seven women (out of about 72 teams, with ten or so members per team), and Loth is one.

The game follows all the college rules, same dimensions to the court. Players must dribble after every two turns of their wheels; otherwise it’s traveling. These athletes, based in New Britain, play a 40-game season between October and April. The Connecticut Spokebenders, in their division, came in 4th in the nation.

nhispokebender%20013.JPGJosh Levine (far right in photo), who went to the Foote School and then to Cross, was now driving down the lane around Rodrigiuez and made a no-look pass to Mark Tartaglia. He missed his shot. But Levine, crashing into Rodriguez and bending a few spokes, got the lay-up and swished in a basket to make the score 15 to 7 baskets, or 30 to 14, in the first half.

Levine can walk, but he suffers from Legg Perthes, a hip disorder that causes considerable pain after a half-hour’s exertion. He played a lot of ball, especially soccer, until he was 12. He’s been with the Spokebenders since then, for six years.

From a basketball disabilities point of view, Levine is rated a three, least disability; Loth is rated a one. The rules say that at any moment, a team’s five players cannot exceed 11 points of disability.

nhispokebender%20015.JPGAfter the game was over David Hicks, chair of the Commission on Disabilities, got a few pointers from Rodriguez and Levine. He still was astonished that these athletes could sink three-pointers, from 22 feet away, using only power of arm and wrist.

“They’re amazing,” he said, to which Armando agreed. Although Hicks didn’t sink one, he scored a great idea. He asked Josh Levine to speak to Rose Coggins, principal of Wilbur Cross, where Levine recently graduated before heading this fall to Wesleyan, to see if the Spokebenders might have one of their regularly season games in the gym. That way 1,000 people can have the experience that Armando Montez had.

The Spokebenders are in division three of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Any interested player is welcomed to learn and to try out. They practice every Tuesday night from seen to 9 at the Special Care Community Center in New Britain.

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