Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Texas amputee basketball team members prove themselves as serious athletes

From the Ft. Worth Star Telegram in Texas:

JOSHUA, Texas -- Scott Odom's basketball team tends to open early leads on opponents.

It seems that the prosthetic legs Odom and his teammates wear give opposing players the false impression that they can take it easy against Amp 1, a squad of amputees from across the country bound by a passion to prove themselves as serious athletes.

"Then we start balling, bodying them up on defense and knocking down jumpers," said Odom (pictured), a Joshua native who lives in Fort Worth. "Their eyes kind of open and they say, 'You guys can play.'"

Odom's team takes to the court tonight at Joshua High School for a charity game.

Formed 18 months ago, the team is pushing for creation of a competitive league for amputees to play "stand-up" basketball -- an alternative to the wheelchair version offered at events for athletes with physical disabilities.

Since debuting at a tournament in Oklahoma last summer, Amp 1 has played games in New York and Utah. They got a sponsor, Freedom Innovations, a prosthetics manufacturer, to help with travel expenses.

On trips, the players visit schools with a message of overcoming physical adversity. A child from Denton who uses leg braces will be a special guest at tonight's game, Odom said.

"We're not disabled athletes. We are not some heartwarming story," he said. "We are athletes. And we'll compete with anybody."

Diverse and determined

Odom played sports as a child. At 14, he lost his right leg above the knee to bone cancer.

He said he spent years trying to form a team of amputees but was always told there were not enough people to play.

"It was excuse after excuse," he said. "I was tired of explaining myself over and over."

So 18 months ago, he posted video of himself burying jump shots on YouTube. Phone calls came from interested amputees across the country. The players were as diverse as they were determined.

On the roster is Ray Gurriere, 57, a pharmacist from Brooklyn, N.Y. R.J. Dozier, 18, is a high school senior from Alabama. Patrolling the paint is Brian Vincent, 32, a culinary-school-trained chef from San Diego born without his left leg below the knee. There is Tyler Hyatt, 27, of Salt Lake City, whose leg was crushed by a garbage truck when he was 4. Odom, 26, is a wound care technician at a hospital.

Right now, all the players on the team are missing one leg, but they have played with people missing arms, even both legs. Most lost their limbs when they were young but refused to let their prosthetics prevent them from playing sports with their able-bodied friends.

"I've been playing regular pickup games for years," Gurriere said, before running onto the court during practice this week at Joshua High School. "Play in a chair? Who the hell wants to do that?"

The team is always recruiting. Missing from today's game because of surgery is the team's 6-foot-7-inch center who Hyatt and his wife spotted one night leaving a restaurant.

"We saw this tall guy, and my wife said 'He's wearing a prosthetic!'" Hyatt said. "So I chased him down."

Opposing players initially view the prosthetics as fragile. When the players join pickup games at gyms like 24 Hour Fitness, Odom said, their opponents at first seem worried about hurting them.

"It's like they're afraid we'll fall down," he said. "You have to score on them a couple times."

Prosthetics have come a long way over the years. Today's versions are made of sturdy carbon fiber. Hyatt's prosthetic is particularly advanced, containing a battery-powered microprocessor that helps him move fluidly.

"When you wear a prosthetic, it usually takes a lot of effort to swing your leg around when you're running or making a cut," he said. "This helps me move faster. It's pretty amazing how well they make them these days."

Tonight's game pits Amp 1 against a team of staff members from Cook Children's Medical Center and counselors from Camp Sanguinity, a summer camp for children being treated for cancer and blood disorders.

Odom attended the camp as a cancer-stricken child and returns as a counselor. Tickets sales will benefit the camp.

"That place means a lot to me," he said. "It helps kids going through what I went through."

But Odom dreams bigger than the occasional charity game.

He envisions a league with teams of amputees competing in front of crowds. He is seeking more players, more sponsors and more schools or organizations interested in hosting benefit games.

Athletic dreams should not die with the loss of a limb, he said.

"Because of the way we look, we're not taken seriously as athletes," he said. "But we prove that we are athletes every time we step onto the court."