SEAN MALONEY ALWAYS has been athletic. And he wasn’t ready to quit at 18, when an accident deprived him of movement from the chest down.
Doctors and physical therapists helped Maloney regain basic living skills, but he missed competition and all it entailed. “I needed another outlet to further myself in life,” he tells me amid a cacophony of squeaks and shouts during Seattle Adaptive Sports’ wheelchair basketball practice at Eckstein Middle School.
When an acquaintance introduced Maloney to wheelchair basketball, it brought far more than good exercise. It gave him a team — people who understand and support him but won’t define him by his disability.
At one of his first practices, six years ago, Maloney recalls, fellow players gently teased him because he didn’t know how to get from his chair into his car without help. Then they showed him how to do it.
“I gained a lot on the sports side, but I’ve also gained a lot on the personal side,” he says.
Players here represent many backgrounds and ages, but everyone has two things in common: They use a wheelchair, and they love basketball.
In addition to dribbling, passing, shooting and defense, wheelchair basketball adds the mechanics of maneuvering — fast — in a wheelchair. And the regulation-height basket is much farther away.
“It’s a little more like chess,” Maloney says. “There’s a lot of chair positioning.”
Jami Tribby did other adaptive sports after her own injury, but with basketball, “Man, there’s a whole other level of competition,” she says. “Plus, the whole other level of facilities you have to tap into in a team sport. I’ve grown so much.”
Practice is intense. In drills, players race to one end of the court, turn around amazingly quickly and streak back. Chairs clash as players scramble for the ball during a scrimmage. There’s a lot of shouting — communication is key, and everyone has a role.
Some players were born with a disability, while others have had accidents, cancer or degenerative disorders. Maloney explains that each player is assigned a number representing a level of disability. Rules dictate including a variety of levels on each team.
The nonprofit SAS is run entirely by volunteers. Travel and other expenses can add up, and funding is always tight. Getting the word out to people who might want to play is a challenge. The athletes hope to gain more recognition through events like an annual tournament the first week of December.
They play against teams from around the region. The elite team, the Sonics, plays all over the country.
The women’s team, the Storm, brings in smaller crowds, so Tribby and other women often practice with the men. Teenagers play in a youth league.
Karl Robinson and his son Luke both play wheelchair basketball. They have a genetic degenerative condition that affects the lower body. When it comes to needing a wheelchair, Robinson tells me, there are pros and cons. “The con: It really stinks. The pro: We’ve gotten to do some pretty cool stuff because of it.”
That includes Luke earning a scholarship to play on Auburn University’s wheelchair basketball team (there are about 10 men’s and four women’s NCAA wheelchair basketball teams).
Karl Robinson discovered SAS when his condition was worsening, just as he was going through a divorce. “This program was a great outlet,” he says. “It’s a great community; it’s a great piece of life.”
When you love sports so much that they’re a core part of your identity, he says, losing that can be a major blow. “If we didn’t have this program, we would be OK. But we really wouldn’t be who we are. To have that back, even at this later point in life, is just fantastic.”