Despite national championship victories for both the men’s and women’s teams, wheelchair basketball doesn’t attract the same crowds as Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide football team. However, a recent men’s match in Tuscaloosa between Alabama and the Orlando Magic team from Florida did have people in the stands. That includes Javalla Hardy of Tuscaloosa and her family.
“Actually, we went to the movie theater the other Monday night. And there were six of the players who were there at the movie theater, and they were as nice as they could be,” says Hardy. “So, we thought we’d come out and support them.”
Wheelchair basketball is a lot like conventional basketball. There’s dribbling, shooting, and the occasional foul. The Hardy’s had a good time, but fans of another wheelchair sport apparently look for something a little louder. Brian Kirkland is a championship player of wheelchair rugby. He says the first match for rookie audience members can be a little jarring.
“I can’t tell you many times someone comes into the gym, right when we’re starting a game and nobody’s hit each other yet,” says Kirkland. “And somebody hits, and I’ve seen them just about come out of their shoes, and go ‘oh, my god!’ “
Kirkland is a paralympian. He and members of Team USA brought home gold and bronze medals for wheelchair rugby from the Paralympic Games in Athens, Sydney, and Beijing. One of his team mates was Bob Lujano.
“One of things we love the spinal cord injury players to tell people is ‘what’s the worst that’s gonna happen? I’m going to break my neck….again?’ ”
Wheelchairs for rugby are similar to those for basketball. The wheels are angled in, and there’s no back rest. There’s one difference, however. Rugby chairs are armored with plenty of dents from all the banging that goes on. Both Lujano and Kirkland play in chairs. Lujano is a quadruple amputee. He lost his forearms and legs to a blood disease when he was young. Kirkland injured his neck competing in motocross. But, don’t call him disabled.
“People are not going to have to tie my shoes for me, and they’re not going to put my clothes on me,” says Kirkland. “I’m doing it. And I did it.”
That mindset is shared at the place where Lujano and Kirkland train. The Lakeshore Foundation is nestled in a wooded area near Samford University in Birmingham. The one thing you don’t hear staff members say here is…”you can’t do this.” Jeff Underwood is President and CEO at Lakeshore. He says the disabled patients usually aren’t the problem. It’s the people around them.
“They just don’t these folks to get hurt, again,” says Underwood. “So, they tend to do everything for them. And they start hearing this over, and over, and over again.”
Lakeshore takes in about four thousand people per year, ranging from disabled members of the military, and even disabled children. It’s also one of only five Paralympic training centers in the United States. It’s here that Brian Kirkland trained to win his Paralympic medals and five national championships for wheelchair rugby. He admits at some point, he may have to slow down.
“I’ve done about everything I’ve wanted to do in my career. I wanted to win a national championship…check! I wanted to win a Paralympic gold medal…check!”
He spends a lot of time at the Lakeshore Foundation, passing along what he’s learned for the next generation of paralympians dreaming of being on Team USA for the games in Rio in 2016. A celebration is planned at Lakeshore tomorrow in honor of the start of the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.