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Mark Shepherd has all the tools a scrappy point guard needs: speed, smarts and an instinct for the game's flowing geometry. He has one other tool—a wheelchair. He is a paraplegic. Four years ago, in the wee hours of July 17, 1986, Shepherd's car Hipped over on a sandy stretch of road near Fairfield, Calif. His back was broken, and he was left with no feeling below the T-12 vertebra, two thirds of the way down his spine.
That, however, is not what comes to mind when you watch Shepherd on a basketball court. At the 10th National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which were held in New Orleans over five hot, humid days at the end of June, the blond, 36-year-old Shepherd was a dynamo. One moment the former army sergeant was driving the length of the court to flip in an underhand layup, the next he was dropping a 12-footer. His passes found Gordon Perry, a member of the 12-athlete guest contingent from Great Britain that was participating in the New Orleans games. Perry, 36, lost his left leg and part of his pelvis to cancer 11 years ago. Though Shepherd and Perry had never met before, they were assigned to the same basketball team. Perry said, "We knitted together from the first." Indeed, they combined for 33 points to lead their team to a 57-40 victory in the championship game.
The rules of wheelchair basketball are only slightly different from those for able-bodied players. Competitors can touch their wheels twice without dribbling; a third touch draws a whistle for a "walk." They can stay in the lane for five seconds. A "personal advantage" foul, unique to wheelchair basketball, is called when a player takes advantage of an athlete more severely disabled than he—when, for instance, a player raises himself up to gain a height advantage over his opponent. But these differences are minor, and the wheelchair game otherwise looks familiar. Players don't dunk, but they do set picks, work the give-and-go and shoot three-pointers.
Shepherd is an ardent spokesman for his sport. He quickly pointed out to someone who hadn't watched wheelchair basketball before that impressive as the games in New Orleans might have looked, they were not top level—the teams were put together in New Orleans to assure a more even competition. "We don't want people to view us benevolently," said Shepherd. "I'd rather not be included in the scheme of things if it is only done out of charity. We want them to watch because our games are exciting and fast paced."
The Wheelchair Games in New Orleans were certainly that. But Shepherd and the 540 other athletes who took part provided more than entertainment. They also breathed life into the platitudes some people recite about the salutary benefits of sport. The competition was fierce but never unfriendly. Athletes were as eager to see their rivals perform well as they were to do so themselves. They gave their all, whether that meant bench-pressing 375 pounds, as did 236-pouhd Kater Cornwell of Charlotte, N.C.; swimming the 25-yard free in 47.84 seconds, as did Ken Wright of Cupertino, Calif., who is classed 1A—the most severely limited of quadriplegics—yet is a world-class athlete within that group; or putting the shot 14'10", which was a personal best for 30-year-old Adrian Patterson, a 1B quadriplegic from Orange, N.J., who was a PFC in the Marine Corps. "I don't have much distance," said Patterson, "but I have beautiful form."
They left ordinary people struggling to describe the feelings they inspired. Actually, the word inspired would make wheelchair athletes cringe. "They don't want to be p.r. people for the disabled," said Jennifer Young, a physical therapist and coach for the athletes from the Seattle VA Medical Center. "But that's kind of what they are."
Like it or not, they inspired each other. After watching quadriplegics maneuver up and down ramps and backward and forward through the pylons of a tortuous slalom course, 44-year-old Lewis Martinez, a quadriplegic who won gold medals in three track events, turned to a friend. "You should see the guys who steer with their chins," he said. "It freaks me out."
Similarly affected were those who clustered outside Tulane University's Reily Student Recreation Center racquetball courts to watch Shepherd take on Dan Hendee, the able-bodied coach of the Ann Arbor, Mich. wheelchair athletes, in a racquetball exhibition. Hendee won 15-7, 15-8, 15-5, but had to work hard to do so. "With the two bounces [a wheelchair athlete is allowed], I have very little advantage," said Hendee. "I can get him off balance, but I can get other people off balance, too. Mark is so agile, those two bounces don't give me much advantage."
In the interest of fair competition, wheelchair sports use their own classification system. "It's sort of like what we do in able-bodied boxing and weightlifting," said Dr. Anne Marie Glenn, who was the medical director of the games. "In able-bodied sports, we group by weight; with the disabled, by remaining function. Usually, an athlete doesn't change class. He may get stronger, and he definitely acquires new skills."
About a third of the athletes in New Orleans were competing in novice divisions, and they were treated with special affection by the more experienced athletes. "It's all about participation at these games," said Cornwell. "It's the best medicine the VA could have given to a veteran, because it brings so many people out. We brought 16 novices with us."