Getting Back in the Game
At Walter Reed, Wheelchair Basketball Helps Wounded Vets See the Possibilities

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It's Thursday afternoon, and that means basketball at the Wagner Sports Center on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After about 90 minutes of drills organized and led by a couple of college players and their coach, the patients get into a little five-on-five fullcourt.

Army Spec. Bryan Wagner grabs a rebound and flexes his arms to ward off Spec. Alex Knapp from trying to sneak in from behind for a steal. Wagner heaves an outlet pass to Spec. Andrew Hill, who brings the ball upcourt and feeds Marine Lance Cpl. Nate Knowles filling the lane for an easy bucket.

And before you think this sounds like an ordinary schoolyard game, watch, then, as Hill, Knowles and their teammates each grab the sides of their wheelchairs, pivot and head back downcourt on defense.

Each of the 10 men on the court, none older than 26, has lost at least one limb in combat. And many of them said no activity has provided better physical or emotional therapy than their time on the hardwood every Thursday.

"Playing this, you forget about your injuries. You really do," said Knowles, 23, who lost his left leg a year ago from battlefield injuries suffered in Afghanistan.

On this particular Thursday, the patients received a visit from members of the Edinboro (Pa.) University wheelchair basketball team -- one of 10 men's intercollegiate outfits in the country. Coach Jim Glatch, who also heads the U.S. under-23 team that will compete in Paris starting today at the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Junior World Championships, brought along two of his standout players from both Edinboro and the national team: Tommie Gray, a rising senior from Warner Robins, Ga., who lost both limbs because of spinal meningitis when he was 4; and Trevon Jenifer, a 2006 graduate of Huntingtown High School, who was born without legs.

"When the war [in Iraq] started I heard about these guys coming home and I wanted to do something to give back," said Glatch, who is not disabled and has coached at Edinboro since 1995. "These guys think athletics are shut off from them, but they're not."

That was the first lesson Knapp had to learn. He lost both of his legs to a makeshift bomb in Iraq in March 2008. As someone who had grown up playing hockey in Shelby Township, Mich., Knapp, 23, was crushed by the thought of living without sports.

"At first, I did think it was over," he said. "Then I learned how much there is for us to do. It surprised me, for sure. None of us believe we've left anything behind."

Before they hit the court, though, each patient needs to leave a critical item at the door: his memory. All of them viewed getting a prosthesis as monumental progress in their rehabilitation. It meant increased mobility and a clear path toward eventual independence.

But when they got onto the basketball court, took off their prostheses and sat back in their wheelchairs, many returned to a place they hoped never to encounter again. Glatch acknowledged, "There's this thought that amputees should not get involved in wheelchair sports," because it could be a psychological setback.

"It's more of an emotional barrier," said Tiffany Smith, a recreational therapist in the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation at Walter Reed who coordinates a different athletic activity for the patients each weekday. "The challenge is getting them back to the chair. When they get back to the wheelchair, they think back to that horrible time when they were first in there."

Knowles recalled his first time on the court almost exactly that way.

"I was like: 'Oh, this sucks. I'm back in a wheelchair,' " he said. "But I immediately saw this as a great workout, and it's a lot of fun."

Before Smith was hired two years ago, she said, there was no recreational therapy program at Walter Reed. In addition to basketball, patients participate in other adaptive sports, such as sailing, kayaking and cycling. Smith said the program's purpose is two-pronged: In addition to giving the patients a way to stay active, sports can also satisfy their competitive juices.

For too long, she said, rehabilitation was too narrowly focused and "recreational therapy was not a priority."

"We're trying to change if from an outlet to something competitive to where they can even try for the Paralympics," Smith said. "Now they look at colleges that have adaptive sports."

After losing both legs to a rocket in 1971 while in Vietnam, Bill Demby became a prominent figure for amputees returning to athletics. He was fitted for prosthetic legs and after excelling in adaptive skiing and track and field events, became a national spokesman for Disabled Sports USA.

Now, Demby, who lives in Bowie and volunteers at Walter Reed with the recreational therapy program, marvels at the progress of rehabilitating patients.

"In the 1970s the idea was, 'Fix 'em up, get 'em up and get going,' " Demby said. "Now, guys are more competitive, and people began to see that as an important part of who you are. If they can do this, then maybe they can do something else. What you want to do with a program like this is capture the ones who aren't [interested in sports] because those are the ones who'll lay in a bed and think they can't do anything."

Glatch laughs at the notion that wheelchair basketball is nothing more than sending 10 men in wheelchairs onto a basketball court, giving them a basketball and letting the action run its course.

"It still comes down to a misconception that it's a sport and people are disabled, so it's easy," Glatch said. "In fact, it's probably tougher because I'm asking them to do things with their arms that most people can't do."

While the game involves a tremendous amount of upper-body strength, it is played almost exactly the same way as it is by able-bodied people. In fact, try watching the game while imagining the wheelchairs aren't there, and the only difference is dribbling; the dribbling rule adapted for wheelchair basketball is that competitors must take at least one dribble -- or pass or shoot -- for every two pushes of their wheelchair.

Other than that, the game is the same. The court's dimensions are the same -- the hoop is still 10 feet high, the three-point line is 20 feet 9 inches from the basket and there is a 24-second shot clock. The action unfolds in a familiar pattern.

Knowles grabbed a rebound, and began dribbling upcourt. Jenifer, who was playing on his team, sped down the court to get behind an opponent. About two or three yards from the baseline, Jenifer grabbed the wheels and braked in front of Knapp, effectively setting a screen for Marine Cpl. Ray Hennagir, who came around the baseline into the left corner for an open shot. Swish.

The program has been an eye-opening experience for Hennagir, who lost both legs and four fingers on his left hand when he was hit by a makeshift bomb in Iraq two years ago.

"I didn't like it standing up," said Hennagir, 22, from Deptford, N.J. "I'm a little guy, so I wasn't good standing up with it, but now, I'm not bad. It's something I want to try to get better at."

Hennagir said he was inspired by Jenifer and Gray. Because he already was thinking about going to college once he leaves Walter Reed, Hennagir is now considering one of the 10 schools that offer wheelchair basketball.

"You get out and be competitive again," he said. "It's a way to grow up. It's healthy."

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