So Much More Than a Game College Wheelchair Basketball Programs Teach Independence, Prepare Athletes for Working World, but They Also Provide a Chance to Fulfill Dreams That Were Once in Doubt

By Meyer, Craig | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

So Much More Than a Game College Wheelchair Basketball Programs Teach Independence, Prepare Athletes for Working World, but They Also Provide a Chance to Fulfill Dreams That Were Once in Doubt


Meyer, Craig, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


EDINBORO, Pa. -- The small school in the small northwestern Pennsylvania town isn't for everyone.

On a late January morning, minutes before the sun rises, the Edinboro University campus is blanketed in snow, just as it always is this time of year in an area known as the "Snow Belt." It's minus 6 degrees outside and, with the wind coming from Lake Erie 30 miles to the north, it feels like minus 22.

Inside McComb Fieldhouse, shielded from those elements, Colm Williams sits in his wheelchair, holding a basketball. A native of Port St. Lucie, Fla. -- where the high was 65 that day -- this would seem a place he doesn't belong.

But on the court, he has found a home.

"Basketball makes you do crazy things sometimes," he said with a smile.

For some like Mr. Williams, opportunity lies under Edinboro's snow and ice. It brings them thousands of miles from home to be a part of something they may have never thought possible.

Together, they are the school's wheelchair basketball program, one of just seven men's and five women's college programs in the country. To those who gather in the small gym this Wednesday morning, basketball is more than a game.

"I try not to use the word 'normal,' but it makes them feel the same as every other kid that wants to be a student-athlete," said Jim Glatch, the team's coach. "It makes them feel, not normal, but no different."

* * *

In a season in which little has gone right with an inexperienced team, a Feb. 22 game turns out to be more of the same.

The Fighting Scots came back from 11 points down in the second half only to lose by two to the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, a team run by a local nonprofit organization.

The players are aggressive and the game is intense. Chairs crash into each other as players set screens for teammates. Though the chairs' wheels are angled to increase stability, a few players fall to the court and need help to get up. By the end of the game, sophomore John Herndon's heavily callused hands are covered in black residue from operating the wheels.

The loss was the team's 15th in a row, but the two-hour trip to the Thelma Lovette YMCA in Pittsburgh's Hill District is something of a reprieve from a deteriorating grind.

Known as the state's pre-eminent university for disabled students, Edinboro is the only college wheelchair basketball program in the Eastern time zone. Its closest college opponent, the University of Illinois, is a nine-hour bus ride away. In early March, the team traveled about 20 hours to the University of Texas- Arlington for its college national tournament.

By the time their season ended Friday, the Fighting Scots logged roughly 8,000 miles on the road. In addition to the travel and other expenses, each player requires a $3,000 custom wheelchair.

For all the opportunities wheelchair basketball provides, those good deeds come with a caveat -- the program is expensive to maintain.

"It is a challenge, there's no doubt," Edinboro athletic director Bruce Baumgartner said.

The program largely relies on fundraising, averaging between $12,000 and $15,000 a year in donations. Last year it raised more than $25,000. Some of that money is used for partial scholarships, which seven players on this year's team have.

Even though those dollar figures seem significant, they go only so far. When you combine that with a lack of a natural recruiting base -- the closest junior program is in Detroit -- it leads to some struggles, both for the team and the program.

"When you move into athletics, it's a little bit different of an expectation level," Mr. Glatch said. "You're expected to win, you're expected to raise money, you're expected to recruit and you're expected to graduate college students.

"We continue to graduate college students, we continue to raise money and we continue to recruit. The problem is we're not winning. …

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