Saturday, May 29, 2010

Michigan high school student to teach his classmates about the joys of wheelchair basketball

From The Flint Journal in Michigan:

SWARTZ CREEK, Mich. — When Justin Coburn (pictured) is on the basketball court, all he’s thinking about is stopping the other team from getting the ball — and scoring, of course.

“Going into the game with a winning attitude — that helps,” says the 16-year-old Swartz Creek High sophomore.

He just does it in a different way. In Justin’s case, he plays basketball from the seat of a wheelchair.

Justin, whose legs were paralyzed five years ago, will have a chance to showcase his athleticism before a high school and public crowd at 7 p.m. Wednesday, when he performs in an exhibition benefit game at the school. There is a twist: His able-bodied classmates, none of whom have played wheelchair basketball, will also play in chairs brought in for the occasion.

Wheelchair basketball is played essentially like the traditional kind. Most of the rules — no double dribbling, for example — are similar. But players need to move the ball and their chairs down the court at the same time, Justin said. They do that by putting the ball in their lap, giving the chair two pushes, dribbling the ball, and repeating as fast as they can go.

How fast do they go?

“Just as fast as you see them do in the NBA, if not faster,” said Justin, who watches collegiate wheelchair basketball on YouTube.

Swartz Creek history teacher Karen Stahler came up with plans for the benefit as a teaching experiment. Her rationale was two-fold.

If students can experience first-hand what it’s like to try to control a basketball and a chair at the same time, “maybe they will have a little better understanding of what it means to have to be confined in a wheelchair,” she said.

But it’s also an opportunity to showcase “the possibilities of those in wheelchairs,” she said.

Tickets are $4. Proceeds will benefit the Michigan Thunderbirds, a Paralympics wheelchair basketball team, and Muscular Dystrophy research.

Justin is one of two wheelchair users in the school. Josh Parsons, 15, also a sophomore, has muscular dystrophy and started using a wheelchair in seventh grade. Stahler says it’s been helpful that the boys have had each other to experience the day-to-day struggles of getting around the school. She considers her own 12-year-old grandson, who has muscular dystrophy. He is the only wheelchair user at the school he attends in Florida.

Josh and Justin talked about their experiences this week.

There are still plenty of places where accessibility isn’t available for wheelchair users, they said. There are restaurants they can’t get into because they don’t have ramps. Crowded school hallways between classes are the worst.

“You’re either ignored or treated badly when you ask people to move,” Justin said.

He recalls trying to go up a school ramp when a vending machine supplier was heading down it, apparently oblivious to the student.

“Now how did you expect us to both fit?” Justin said. “They just stand in the way.”

For his part, Josh said he could do without the same tired jokes.

“You just ran over me,” Josh says people joke. “OK, that’s getting old. Or, oh, my God, you almost hit me. That’s getting really old, really fast.”

“Like, seriously,” Justin adds.

“If people understand how hard it is they might think of what they’re saying next time,” Josh says.

Sophomore Kayla Myott, 16, agrees those attitudes exist. She signed up to play in the benefit because she wants to help, plus she thinks it will be fun.

“Honestly, I’ll try my best. I’ll just have to watch Justin to see how he does it,” said Kayla. “He’s really cool, really nice.”

Justin plans to practice his game this summer and sign up with the Junior Thunderbird team. His teacher says he has a great shot at a scholarship for the sport. Justin says there are several colleges nationwide that sponsor wheelchair teams.

Justin was in the fifth grade when an aneurysm ruptured in his spine. The signs were horrible back pains. When he arrived at the emergency room, he tried to stand up and just collapsed. “As we say, that was it,” Justin recalls.

Before the paralysis, Justin played every sport he could get his large, limber hands on: basketball, soccer, baseball. But he loved to practice basketball out at the net on the driveway at home the most.

Three years ago, Justin attended a sports camp for wheelchair-users at Michigan State University in East Lansing and two significant events happened: he rediscovered his love of basketball, and he met the man that would become his mentor, a player with the Michigan Thunderbirds.

Justin doesn’t practice with the team, but he does have pick-up games with them on Fridays in a school building in Troy.

“It was fun and it just kind of made me feel like I can still do stuff,” Justin said.