Playing for more than just a win

Sweat poured down the face of 12-year-old Justyn Newman. The go-to point guard for the KC Junior Pioneers was in the middle of a three-on-three scrimmage with his teammates at the North Kansas City Community Center. His body ached. His muscles screamed. But the fiery young athlete ignored the pain as he made a quick spin, shook his defender and drove the lane for two.

Players on the other team wasted little time responding. They crisscrossed the floor in rapid-fire motion and pushed the ball back down the court.

“Somebody needs to pick and roll,” assistant coach Sarah Castle reminded her team during this practice in late November. “If you’re not setting a pick, nothing can happen.”

But something remarkable always happens when Justyn and his teammates hit the hardwood.

These talented players — members of the nationally ranked Junior Pioneers wheelchair basketball team — wow fans with their quick hands and lightning speed. They intimidate opponents with their tight defense and dogged determination in the paint.

And they defy the notion that people with physical disabilities can’t compete in the same sports as other athletes.

“When I play, it shows people that I’m no different from anyone else,” said Justyn, who was diagnosed three years ago with a rare and debilitating disease of the hip called Legg-Calve-Perthes. “I also get to hang out with some pretty cool people and play the sport I love.”

Wheelchair basketball isn’t much different from the legendary sport James Naismith invented in 1891. The game is played with the same number of players. The court is the same size. And the rules are almost identical to the basketball we’re all familiar with.

“We shoot free throws, we have a shot clock and a three-point line,” said David Thomas, president and executive director of Mid-America Adaptive Sports Inc. The North Kansas City nonprofit organization runs the Junior Pioneers wheelchair basketball team.

“Almost everything is the same as regular basketball,” added Thomas, who played wheelchair basketball in college and now coaches the sophomore boys basketball team at Winnetonka High School.

Wheelchair basketball, however, has a few rules that apply specifically to the oversized, high performance chairs players use in the game.

“The wheelchair is considered part of the body — logically, the lower part of the body,” Thomas said. “Wherever the chair is, you are. If the chair is out of bounds, you’re out of bounds.

“And any excessive contact (between chairs) is considered a foul.”

The rule book also states that players must stay seated in their wheelchairs during games — a requirement that makes it difficult to shoot from outside.

Players involved in this sport can’t carry the ball down the court, either. They’ll get called for traveling if they don’t dribble a certain number of times when handling the ball.

“If you touch the wheel three times without bouncing the ball, you’ve traveled,” Thomas said.

Wheelchair basketball players face another challenge when they’re on the court. Their chairs limit their range of motion. They prevent the players from moving side-to-side.

“You can’t sidestep in this game,” said Thomas, a physical education teacher at Clardy Elementary School.

How do wheelchair athletes overcome these obstacles? They do what they do best when confronting any problem — on or off the court.

They adapt.

They develop new strategies and game plans.

“The pick and roll is essential in wheelchair basketball,” Thomas said.

Just like in regular basketball, this offensive play creates space and allows players to get an open look at the basket or move closer to the goal.

During a recent practice with the Junior Pioneers, Castle drilled her players on the importance of setting picks. The four-time paralympian also showed them how to defend against the pick and roll.

“Trust me,” said Castle, who served as captain of the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team during the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. “You need to stay with your man and not chase the ball.”

Sixteen-year-old Peter Voskovitch, a veteran player with the Junior Pioneers, said wheelchair teams need other weapons in their basketball arsenals to compete. They’re the same weapons regular basketball teams include in their game plans.

“You have to have a strong defense and offense,” said Peter, who has a potentially life-threatening disease called spinal muscular atrophy. “You also need good teamwork.”

The kind-hearted Peter glanced at his teammates. A smile crossed his face and he nodded in approval.

“Everyone here has something to bring to the game,” the junior at Warrensburg High School said. He pointed to Justyn, the youngest player in the starting lineup. “You’re our leading scorer,” he told him. “You also have quick hands.”

Peter, however, doesn’t play wheelchair basketball to fuel his competitive spirit. His love of the game runs much deeper than points on a score board.

The academic All-American has fostered several friendships during his seven-year tenure with the team. He’s also helped shatter the image some people have of athletes who have disabilities.

“Ever since I came to my first practice when I was in the fifth grade, I was hooked,” Peter said. “I’ve loved every moment I’ve played. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some really cool people. And I’ve seen this game break the (negative) connotation people have about a disabled person.

“Once they see us play,” he added, “they ignore everything else and only look at us as athletes. Some people have even said it’s awe-inspiring to see us play.”

The Junior Pioneers, however, struggled on the court for years. When Thomas took over the program in 2010, he inherited a team that had won only two games in the past seven years.

He vowed to turn the program around.

“My first year with the team, we had a .500 ball club,” Thomas said. “We’re now in year three of rebuilding this program.”

But Thomas and his players have already reached several milestones on the national wheelchair basketball circuit, which puts them on the road to pit their skills against competitors. The Junior Pioneers, for example, qualified for their first competition on the national level in 2012. They also finished the past two years ranked 25th in the country.

What about this season? How is this scrappy team faring this year?

The Junior Pioneers are off to a rocky start, Thomas said. The team has a 2-9 record and won’t get the chance to improve those numbers until January.

“We have a tough schedule this year,” Thomas said of his team, which competes in the Northern Junior Conference of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. He said the nine games the team lost were very close. “We also graduated four starters at the end of last season.”

The Junior Pioneers now have nine players — boys and girls — on the roster. Those players range in age from 11 to 17. Thomas and his coaches work with these young athletes once a week to improve their skill and finesse on the court. And they’re optimistic the team will improve its record over the next few months.

“Our end game is to get to the national tournament in April,” Thomas said. “But first, we have to qualify.”

The Junior Pioneers currently are ranked around 30th out of 50 teams nationwide, Thomas said. And all those teams are vying for one of the 32 spots in the NWBA’s national tournament.

Thomas won’t be too disappointed if his team doesn’t advance to post-season play this year.

Although he’s a feisty competitor, Thomas isn’t focused solely on winning ball games. He is more concerned about giving kids with physical disabilities the chance to play sports and be treated just like any other athlete.

“Every disabled kid should know this is their opportunity to play a competitive sport,” said Thomas, who has spina bifida. “I’m the only program like this for hundreds of miles. I bring in kids from Topeka, Warrensburg, and Belton.

“I’m trying to show my kids that — if they work hard — they belong on the same field as anyone else.”

Castle shares his vision.

“Sports in general are good for kids in terms of staying fit and learning rules and responsibility,” said Castle, who had an immune system malfunction in 1985 that attacked her spinal cord. “But there aren’t as many opportunities for kids with physical disabilities to play sports.

“This (program) lets our kids compete with kids who are just like them,” she added. “It gives them a sense of self-confidence. And they get to travel across the country.”

Wheelchair basketball offers young athletes other opportunities, she said. The sport gives them the chance to continue their education and become collegiate athletes.

“Our kids can get scholarships to college,” said Castle, an assistant Jackson County prosecuting attorney who played wheelchair basketball for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They can go to college, play sports and do all the things that other kids do to become successful.”

Several Junior Pioneers athletes have achieved their dream to play college hoops.

“For the past three years in a row, we’ve sent kids off to play college wheelchair basketball,” Thomas said. “And for the past three years in a row, we’ve had Academic All-Americans on our teams. Our kids are smart — really smart. And they’re talented athletes.”

The Junior Pioneers have two Academic All-Americans in their starting lineup — Peter and 17-year-old Callum Kerr of Leawood.

The easy-going Kerr would like to compete in wheelchair basketball in college. But he didn’t start playing the game in hopes of landing a scholarship.

He was looking for a way to stay active.

“This is a good way to keep fit and work on my leadership skills in a group environment,” said Kerr, who had a spinal cord tumor that caused nerve damage. “This is also a really fun activity.”

Thomas hopes his players’ success — on and off the court — will attract more athletes with physical disabilities to his program.

“I want more kids to get involved with us,” he said. “I need them to know we’re here. Every physically disabled kid who hears about what we’re doing ends up trying us out. And most of them stick around. But the problem is not enough people know about us.”

Susan Bird is relieved she learned about the Junior Pioneers. The Northland woman applauds the team and its effort to help children like her 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth.

“Movement is so important for kids like Elizabeth,” Bird said of her daughter, who had a tumor removed from her spine when she was 5 months old.

Elizabeth attends the team’s practices and has earned the distinction as the youngest athlete in the program. She isn’t quite ready to hit the hardwood with her older teammates. But this aspiring player is content to play catch with her mom and work on her dribbling skills.

“I like it,” Elizabeth said of playing wheelchair basketball.

Kelly Newman also commends the Junior Pioneers and the positive impact the program has on her son Justyn and other children with physical disabilities.

“This is amazing,” Newman said. “Children (with disabilities) need to see they can do anything able-bodied kids can do. They need a place where they can go and not be looked at any differently.”

Newman’s eyes drifted toward the court. She watched her son maneuver his way across the floor and head toward the basket.

“This is his outlet,” she said. “This program has changed his life.”