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Basketball On Wheels: Spokebenders, NYA Host Wheelchair Hoops Tourney



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Basketball is an intense game with quick ball movement, lots of scoring, moving screens, plenty of contact, and fouls. Add wheelchairs to the mix and you’ve got a similarly fast-paced game with a twist. On October 25 and 26, athletes from six basketball teams competed in the McKane & Kennedy Memorial Tournament hosted by NYA Sports & Fitness Center.

The Connecticut Spokebenders took on other National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) teams from New York and Massachusetts in a fun-filled yet competitive tourney. These athletes not only passed, dribbled, shot, and scored, but also followed wheelchair game-specific rules to avoid traveling violations — showing off their coordination and strength as they moved feverishly up and down the court.

“It’s pretty competitive,” says Spokebender player Darrell Ruopp of Southbury, who has played wheelchair basketball for ten and a half years after sustaining an injury doing motocross.

Ruopp, teammate Carlos Quiles of Meriden, and NYA Evening/Weekend Manager Robert Frangione organized the event, which also drew four teams from New York and one from Massachusetts.

“It was real basketball — simple as that. They were trying to win; they were giving 100 percent,” said Frangione, adding that the players were all very competitive but also displayed sportsmanship throughout the tourney.

It was sponsored in part by Newtown Savings Bank, New Britain Medical Supplies, Advanced Wheels, and the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain. Big Y and Coca Cola also contributed refreshments for tourney volunteers and players. The Nassau County Kings defeated the New England Paralyzed Veterans of America (NEPVA) Celtics, a team from Massachusetts, 67-46 in the championship game.

The Spokebenders have a rich history; the team was founded in 1965 and is one of the longest-running NWBA squads, Quiles notes. The tourney was named after Spokebender players who have passed away: Paul “Iceman” McKane and Joseph Kennedy.

Frangione says the tourney was well received by all participants and they are hoping to make this an annual event.

Playing wheelchair basketball is about more than trying to make baskets and have fun for these athletes.

“It is tons of fun. As you can see, it’s a very competitive game,” said Quiles, while watching the final game of the tournament.

“It just keeps us in shape. It’s definitely not for fun and games — we want to win,” said Ruopp, whose team reached the tournament’s semifinals.

The Spokebenders, whose name may be pretty accurate based on the occasional collisions on the court, participate in 30 or so games each season, from October through April. They travel to various states, including Colorado, Illinois, and Ohio, to compete in national tourneys.

“It really turns into more than a team — it turns into a family,” points out Quiles, adding that teammates go to each other’s birthday parties and socialize off the court.

Quiles had a spinal cord tumor when he was 2 years old. The surgery caused an injury and, about six years later, he began participating in track and field. Ten years later, Quiles started playing basketball. Now, the 33-year-old is a 14-year basketball enthusiast who has spent the past four years as a player-coach.

The games are officiated and take place on regulation courts with traditional ten-foot-high baskets. As Ruopp notes, the athletes follow the National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. As is the case with any other basketball game, there are traveling violations. Players may give their chairs a push no more than twice between dribbles to avoid turnovers, Ruopp explains. The three-second rule is enforced if players stay in the paint, and players must move the ball over half court within ten seconds.

The competitors use wheelchairs set up with cambered wheels for lateral stability and to avoid finger injuries when pushing to move around the court, Ruopp adds.

Members of the Spokebenders and other teams practice together each week and fine-tune their games so they can try to win every time out on the floor.

“I definitely like the competitiveness. It’s always on edge — every play,” Ruopp said. “It’s pretty intense.”

For more information, visit ctspokebenders.com or facebook.com/ctspokebenders.

The Connecticut Spokebenders had success at their tournament, reaching the semifinal-round. The team and NYA plan to hold a tourney every fall.
National Wheelchair Basketball Association players compete in the McKane & Kennedy Memorial Tournament at NYA Sports & Fitness Center on October 25. The Connecticut Spokebenders and NYA hosted the tourney, which included six teams.
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