The Coast News Group
Wheelchair basketball players at the Navy Medical Center San Diego make up the only all-military team in the country. Photo by Ellen Wright
Carlsbad Carlsbad Featured Community Featured Sports

Wounded vets wheel into basketball success

REGION — Wheelchair basketball began out of a Veterans Administration hospital following World War II and after almost 70 years, only one all-military team remains — the Wolfpack.

Recreational therapist Marla Knox said it’s a huge point of pride for the team.

“About 70 years later, here we’re the only military team in the nation so for us, (the Wolfpack) felt very proud of that fact,” she said.

The Wolfpack got its start in 2011 at the Navy Medical Center San Diego and began competing the following year.

After two years, the Wolfpack won second place in their national division and was bumped up to Division II, where they now compete against Paralympic athletes.

It’s completely funded from donors, like that of the Carlsbad Cares Committee, which donated $1,735 to the Warrior Foundation in July.

Knox said the basketball program provides a healthy way to cope with re-adjusting to life after war.

“There are hardly any support systems like this in the Unites States,” said Knox. “It’s a huge thing. It ties into their isolation, depression, weight gain, increased alcohol and drug use. So programs like this are really, really important.”

Team member Eric Rodriguez said he was surprised by how much tactic the game involves.

“It’s good both mentally and physically,” Rodriguez said. “It requires so much tactic, it’s not just going out there and muscling your way through.”

While the physical component is hugely important, Knox said the therapy also teaches valuable lessons to the veterans.

“There is no ‘oh poor me’ here. If you fall, you have to get back up whether you have one leg, two legs or no legs and that’s kind of a metaphor for life,” she said.

During practice, the players do fall although they quickly prop themselves back up, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with the help of teammates.

The camaraderie on the court is palpable and coach Jaime Baltazar said is another component that is really helpful to the vets.

“The reason they love this sport is camaraderie,” he said. “Once you retire from the military, you miss that camaraderie and that adrenaline.”

He said their military background helps on the court because they communicate and work better as a unit.

Some of the players are going on to play at the collegiate level, since there are eight college wheelchair basketball teams in the country.

Rodriguez said he’s planning to continue and is deciding which school he wants to play for.

The majority of the rules for wheelchair basketball are the same although there is one exception.

There can only be a certain amount of “points” on the court at any given time.

Players are given a point ranking based on their disability so no more than 15 points can be on the court at any given time, which Baltazar said, evens out the playing field.

Each player has a wheelchair custom tailored to them and the chairs are meant to be an extension of their bodies.

Because of this, it is considered a foul if the wheelchair frames come into contact with another player’s.

While the Wolfpack gets ready for the 2015-16 season, they’re hosting a camp to help others get involved and improve their skills.

The camp takes place Sept. 18 through Sept. 20 at the Municipal Gym at the Pan American Plaza and interested participants can contact [email protected]