BY MADELYN VETRANO
Webster’s dictionary defines a person with a disability as being “physically or mentally impaired in a way that substantially limits activity.” If there were ever a group of individuals to defy labels, it’s the men from the Nassau County Kings wheelchair basketball team.
On Wednesday, March 26, Awareness is Key and the Recreation Club organized SJC’s first wheelchair basketball tournament which featured the impressive and talented teammates from the Kings basketball team. To kick off the event, the players gave us some insight as to how the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) conducts these adaptive games by playing a quick game against each other. The competitors dodged, dribbled, and darted around the net as the enthusiasm in the stands didn’t waver throughout the entire game.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the NWBA consists of three community-based teams that are split into three divisions–similar to college sports. The Kings play at the Division 3 level, and all divisions are sanctioned by the NCAA. Two years ago, the Kings finished 7th in the country out of 200 teams. Undoubtedly, this success is due in part to devoted men such as Anthony Fitzgerald and Joe Slaninka.
Fitzgerald has been coaching and managing the Kings for about three years, but he started with the team when he was 26-years-old. After a traumatic car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, he was approached by Jack Graf, who ran the team at the time, and asked to join the organization—he’s been playing ever since. “Fitzy,” as everyone calls him, is one of the original members of the team, but in his later years, hastaken more of a managerial position.
Out of the many years that he’s been playing, there are two moments that hold a great sense of pride to Fitzy. The first is when the team won the NYC Mayor’s Cup for the first time because it was, as he called it, “a pure team triumph – a great combination of young and old guys and we really came together.”
His second source of pride stems from recruiting newly disabled people because it gives him the opportunity to extend to others the blessings that he received after joining. “Wheelchair basketball saved my life, in a way,” he explains, “it’s more like therapy…you’re with people with similar problems, and you’re working towards a common goal – there are not too many things that are greater than that.”
Not only does this league create a support system for the people who need it, but it connects them with a plethora of other opportunities. Teammate Joe Slaninka is the quintessence of someone who crossed over to the side of adaptive sports and kept looking for more. Slaninka was born with spinabifida and has been playing with the team since he was 19-years-old. After seeing the Kings play an exhibition game at his alma mater, Stony Brook University, he looked into playing for them–and it didn’t take long to become completely enthralled with the game. He told me, “ I fell in love with it. It was an opportunity for exercise, to go places, to meet people…and just kind of start my life.”
Nowadays, there is an abundance of adaptive sports, including wheelchair softball, football, and ice sledding. For most, wheelchair basketball is the beginning of a new journey. Not only that, but Slaninka has pushed in the NYC, LI, and Boston marathons, he’s a green belt in Tiger Shulman’s karate, and he’s “jumped out of an airplane two or three times.” He says, “there’s always a place to play and that’s what we wanna do, we wanna play. If we can play something every day, we do!”
This mentality of living fully is the kind that everyone should abide by. Not only that, but this event was a huge success in carrying out the ideals of Awareness is Key. Club President Lauren Waka ‘15 affirms their mission is to “help foster an environment in SJC and the surrounding community that promotes respect and equality and eliminates misconceptions of illnesses and disabilities through fun and engaging educational experiences.” As a spectator, this event demonstrated those ideals as students and players wheeled around the court ecstatically. It united two groups of people that are seen as different and gave them the opportunity to experience the inherent competitiveness and enthusiasm that we all possess. That “substantially limited activity” that Webster’s includes in its definition doesn’t even come close to being accurate when the Kings storm the court.