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Wounded Warriors Tip Off at Basketball Tournament

By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 22, 2009 – Sounds of dribbled basketballs and players’ shouts filled the Wagner Gym at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here yesterday, but absent were the thuds and squeaks of players running up and down the court.

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A member of the National Naval Medical Center team shoots during a wheelchair basketball tournament at Wagner Sports Center, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., July 21, 2009. DoD photo by William D. Moss

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Replacing them at the first City Wheelchair Basketball Tournament were the hissing of hands slowing wheelchairs and the clanging as they collided.

Although the game seemed to trade the normally subtle, hidden tricks of defending a player for aggressive blocking and pushing more akin to hockey or soccer, the players trash-talked and joked as any friends would on the court.

The games didn’t require players to be amputees or have injuries that would put them in a wheelchair, but all participants had to play from a chair. In that case, the players who regularly use wheelchairs had an advantage over those who don’t.

“It’s fun to do,” Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Justin Knowles, a patient at Walter Reed, said. “Some people won’t get excited for activities because they’re in their chair. But in this, everybody’s in it. There’s no excuse not to do it; there’s no reason not to be excited to play ball with your friends.”

The tournament, organized by U.S. Paralympics’ Military Paralympics program, brought in teams from the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., the National Rehabilitation Hospital here and the Capital Wheelchair Basketball Conference.

The teams came together to show their support and mutual respect, in addition to the chance to compete, said Paralympic coordinator Kari Miller.

“We started the Paralympic program here at Walter Reed in October, so it’s a very young program,” she said. “We get them participating in different Paralympic sports, so if other organizations invite them to play, they can come into the public eye and showcase their abilities, not their disabilities.”

Miller, a silver medal-winning athlete on the U.S. Paralympic sitting volleyball team, said the program ideally will expand to include the full spectrum of Paralympic sports. She said the program isn’t necessarily designed to train world-class athletes, but rather to give wounded servicemembers a way to enjoy physical leisure activities, especially when they return to their homes and families.

“Whatever level they want to reach, we want to help them get there,” she said.

Knowles said he looks forward to expanding the program. Playing basketball has been fun, he said, but he’s eager to try different sports and allow his drive for competition to grow.

“I can’t wait until we start playing more sports. It doesn’t matter which ones,” he said. “I want to try it all.”

(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA player on the Walter Reed team moves toward the hoop during a wheelchair basketball tournament at Wagner Sports Center, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., July 21, 2009. DoD photo by William D. Moss  
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