In April, the Bennett Blazers, Kennedy Krieger’s wheelchair basketball team, and I travelled all the way to Denver, Colorado for four days to compete in the 2011 National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s (NWBA) National Championships. We felt prepared—we’d been a strong team all year with a solid defense that anticipated each other’s moves. We were also the only team that had brought just six players to the tournament, which left us with only one substitute—a fact other teams seemed to be more concerned about than my players. They were ready to play the whole game no matter what, and they did.
I had complete faith in the team and their abilities, but I couldn’t have predicted their dedication, composure and confidence throughout some of the hardest minutes of basketball they had ever played. It was a nail-biter all the way to the end. Here’s a play-by-play:
It’s half-time, and we’re down 10 points in the championship game.
I flash back to 2007 and remember this same Bennett Blazers team competing against this same Nebraska Red Dawgs team and how we prevailed to win the Championship for ages 13 and under.
The crowd is loud and overwhelming, especially for the first-time players. I’m worried about their composure. But if they’re nervous, they’re not showing it yet.
During the second half the adrenaline is mounting with every huddle. We begin to close the gap. Gail, often considered the team’s “Voice of Reason” constantly encourages the others, taking on the responsibility of keeping their spirits up. More than once she tells them, “Don’t worry, I will get the next shot!”
Ryan scores a three-pointer, and now we’re only down by two. The Nebraska Red Dawgs are in possession. With just 20 seconds left, the Red Dawgs miss a layup shot. We get the rebound and quickly move down court, only to shoot and miss. But then Gail goes for the rebound. As her hand releases the ball, the buzzer sounds as the ball flies into the basket. We just made it into overtime!
Feeling a temporary euphoria, the team gathers at the sidelines and we hold hands to do our customary cheer before the tip-off that will begin overtime play.
I don’t know if they notice, but their hands are shaking.
Overtime will be 5 minutes of regulation play. The team with the most points at the end of five minutes wins.
First the tip-off: We grab the ball and start down the court, but miss the shot. At this point it’s a see-saw game, but then the Red Dawgs make the last shot. The final score is Red Dawgs, 63, Bennett Blazers, 60.
The Bennett Blazer’s receive second place in the 2011 NWBA Varsity Division National Tournament.
Win or lose, this team continues to impress me, over and over again. For our younger players, it’s so encouraging to watch them communicate with just one look. Growing up together as a team has allowed them to anticipate each other’s moves and is something truly special to watch on the court.
Through the years they have even inspired me to change my coaching methods. I let them solve problems on the court as a team. We have a diverse core of experienced players, and it helps to balance the team. For some teams you might constantly have to reiterate the basics, but this team can remind themselves so that we can focus on bigger issues.
For those who know me, I expect a lot from my players, and they have continually met my expectations. They make my job easier and fun. These six players may have wondered in the beginning, “Can I do it?”
Now, each player can say confidently, ‘I know I can’.
They have grown so much over the years. And they have done so together. To come back from 10 points behind at half-time is no easy feat. Many teams would have crumbled, but instead this group brought the game into overtime at the buzzer. It is a testament to their endurance, strength and ability. The Bennett Blazers came to play the entire game, and they did just that.
Congratulations to the 2011 Bennett Blazers: Gail Gaeng, Juwan Guy, Ben Mayforth, Hannah McFadden, Seamus McNally and Ryan Neiswender. Read more about them in this press release announcing their many tournament honors.
Gerry Herman is the director of the Physically Challenged Sports and Recreation Program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and proud coach of the Bennett Blazers Wheelchair Basketball Team, now the second-best Varsity wheelchair basketball team in the nation.