The clank of wheelchairs colliding and sound of basketballs springing off the Carmichael Gymnasium floor echoed throughout the N.C. State University recreation center over the weekend.
Ashley Thomas, founder and executive director of Bridge II Sports, was on the sidelines, watching with pride as two teams competed Sunday morning, racing up and down the basketball court at all-out speed.
“What I love with this is these are just children playing,” Thomas said, casting a glance at the 5- to 13-year-olds dribbling, passing and strong-arming their wheelchairs for two periods of eight-minute play.
That did not stop the players from being fierce competitors whose game faces could not hide their exuberance.
North Carolina had three teams in the tournament — the Raleigh-based Bridge II Sports Junior Thunder, the Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets and the Revolution out of Johnston County.
The Rollin’ Hornets were on the floor as Thomas took a few moments to highlight the benefits of the tournament.
The sport wheelchairs are designed specially with wheels at an angle that allow for more swivel and spinning.
A boy wearing a No. 23 jersey swung his chair in and out of the traffic under the goal. Just after passing under the net, he swung his arm back with a layup and swish that delighted the crowd. Not long after that, as the Rollin’ Hornets raced back to play defense on the other end of the court, a boy from the opposing team had a collision that sent his chair toppling over. The players and referees helped him up, and after a sportsman’s handshake between the players who had collided, play resumed.
Thomas, in a wheelchair herself, believes in developing programs so people of all ages with disabilities can participate in team and individual sports.
“We can teach children how to live with a disability or we can teach them how to be disabled,” Thomas said. “The latter has no good outcomes.”
The prep league teams for children 13 and under played at a fast pace, a little less strategically than the teams for the next league up, from middle schools and high schools. The varsity league shoots at hoops 10 feet off the ground, compared with the 8-foot-high hoops the younger children use. Coaches on the sidelines plot out more scripted play for the varsity teams, incorporating dribbling, passing and defensive or offensive moves that come with experience.
Not only do the teams provide the players an opportunity to take part in physical activities, they offer a sense of camaraderie that participants say can play a major role off the court, too.
The teams make it possible for players to become friends with others who are going through the same experiences they are and to develop a stronger sense of independence, coaches and participants have said.
Thomas says that 24,000 to 25,000 children in the North Carolina public school system have a disability. Not only would she like North Carolina high schools to develop programs, she has her eyes set on colleges, too.
“I want a collegiate program in the ACC,” Thomas said. “I think UNC-Chapel Hill or N.C. State University should have a program.”