First Day of Practice

The parking lot of the Glenview Community Center in Orange Mound is lined with campaign signs as my mom rolls my wheelchair to the passenger door of our battered Toyota Avalon.

“This all sounds stupid,” I say, grabbing my legs and swinging them outside the car door.

“Don’t call things stupid. Besides, Trey, you love basketball,” Mom says. 

“I used to. When I could still play.”

My mom purses her lips and raises an eyebrow. I’m busy pulling myself into the chair, so I don’t see her do those things, but I know the disapproving face she’s making.

“Trey, you’re only as disabled as you let yourself be,” she says for the millionth time since I got shot back in June. Like, what’s that even mean? She’s got these catchphrases for everything. It’s her way of avoiding the truth that I can’t do anything I used to.

This isn’t the first time she’s tried getting me back on the court. At rehab last month, she told the physical therapist I used to play ball and insisted I would again. So they made me try shooting baskets at the hospital’s gym. The previous year, I had the sickest crossover on the JV team. Now, sitting down, I could barely get the ball up to the net. When they started lowering the basket for me, I couldn’t take it. I just left. 

The therapist followed us out to the car to tell us about the Memphis Rollin’ Grizzlies, this whole team of guys who play basketball in wheelchairs. She gave us the coach’s number. When we got home, Mom dialed the number and shoved the phone into my hands because I sure as hell wasn’t going to choose to make the call myself. Seeing a group of grown men in wheelchairs pretend to play basketball like I’d just done sounded depressing. 

But here we are.

I hear basketballs dribbling to my left as we enter the community center. Through double doors, guys in chairs streak past faster than I expected. We sit in the doorway and watch them shoot free throws for a bit. Empty wheelchairs similar to mine line the far wall. The chairs they’re playing in look way different, with slanted wheels and this bar that extends around the front of their feet. Practice started thirty minutes ago, but on the phone Al, the coach, said to get here whenever. He’d kept saying I just needed to get in to see a practice. 

“Alright, fellas, back on the line!” Across the gym, a small white man in a wheelchair calls out instructions, blows a whistle. The ten players push hard down the length of the court. At the end, they turn faster than I’ve ever been able to in my chair. One dude even goes up on one wheel around the turn. The coach waves us over.

Coach Al asks about my injury, and I let my mom answer all his questions while I watch the guys pushing down-and-backs up and down the court. I’m staring at the hoop when I hear Al explain that most of the rules are the same as “able-bodied” basketball, which is what they call regular basketball. 

“How high is the basket?”

“Ten feet. Everything about the court is the same.”

“You have to dribble?”

“Yep. You can’t do more than two pushes without dribbling.”

I nod, wondering how they’re supposed to push and dribble at the same time, let alone things like crossovers or three-pointers. I think back to our final post-season game last year. That three pointer I barely missed against Melrose that would have put us within one basket with under a minute left. Half of us were in tears after losing that game, and I vowed I wouldn’t miss the shot next time. 

“I guess y’all don’t really do three-pointers in wheelchair basketball,” I say, realizing I’ll never get that second chance.

Coach raises an eyebrow, then calls out to one of the guys. “Hey O! Shoot a three.” Al tosses a ball to this tall dude with no legs. He’s wearing a durag and a glove on one hand. He pulls up and drains a shot from a few feet behind the three point line. Someone tosses the ball back to him and he does it again.

I close my mouth, which was just hanging open. I try to picture myself making a shot like that, but I can’t shake the image of me struggling to get the ball up to the basket in that hospital.

Coach checks his watch, then blows his whistle. “Alright, gentlemen, get some water!” 

Everyone’s breathing heavily as they get water and start shooting around. A couple guys come over and introduce themselves: a redhead man in his thirties who towers over us. A lanky light-skinned black guy with muscled arms who looks like he could play for the able-bodied Grizzlies team if not for his skinny legs. 

They ask me questions, and I tell them about my gunshot injury, how I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time, running with some guys I shouldn’t have been running with. I leave out the depression that came after I woke up and realized I wasn’t dead but that my life was over. I don’t mention all the tears I cried about things I’d never do. Play basketball. Drive a car. Have a girlfriend, maybe a family some day. Talking to them is different though. Their faces say they feel sad for me, but not sorry for me like everyone else has up to this point.

This isn’t what I thought it was, and I finally admit to myself how much I want to be a part of it. But my mind flashes back to rehab…

“You alright, Trey?” Mom asks. 

I nod slowly and mumble, “I don’t know if I can do all this.”

Al puts a hand on my shoulder, and his voice changes to that of a father giving advice. “Don’t cut yourself short. These guys were all in your same position at one point.”

“This takes time, you feel me?” says Archie, the lanky, light-skinned guy. “We gonna get you out here hoopin’ though.”

Al calls out to the guy who was draining threes. “Big O! Come here for a minute.”

“What’s up, fam?” O says, shaking my hand.

Al points to me and tells Big O how long I’ve been in a chair.

“Man, you’re real fresh,” O says. “This junt don’t get easy, but it gets easier, you feel me?”

I nod and listen to Big O tell about his accident, how he coped with everything and still is coping, how he was intimidated to get out on the court at first too. I watch him go back out on the court and post someone up on the block, and I wonder how he was ever scared. 

“What do you think? You gonna come back Wednesday?” Al asks as the players scrimmage. “We’ll get you in a ball chair, see how that feels.”

I look to my mom, who I can tell is holding back an I told you so smirk. “Maybe. I’ll think about it,” I say. I’m sure Mom is rolling her eyes because she can tell how much I want to be part of this.

Once practice is over, everyone convenes out in the parking lot. While most of the players debate about what defensive set they should run against some of the teams they’ll face in an upcoming tournament in Alabama, the guy who was hitting reverse layups before comes over to me.

“It was Trey, right?” he asks.

“Yeah. And your name was…”

“Justin,” he says, giving me a fist bump. “Four months ago, huh? That’s tough. You’re still relearning how to live life. I bet you have a lot of questions.”

I shrug. 

Another guy leans over to us. “He’s wondering the same thing we all wondered after we got injured, and the answer is yes, you can still have sex.” 

“Manners, A.G.!” Justin says, nodding toward my mom. 

I’m avoiding eye contact with her and dying of embarrassment inside, so I change the subject.

“Well, like, how do you drive a car?” I ask.

Justin takes me and Mom over to his car, and he shows me how the hand controls work, how he gets his chair inside. He shows me a picture of his wife and his two-year-old daughter sitting in his lap. He tells me about playing basketball in college, becoming a science teacher, about how disability is never an excuse for not doing something in life. 

Then he says something that makes me cringe.

“You know, I’ve seen a lot of disabled people never try things because they’re afraid of failure. Don’t make yourself more disabled than you actually are.”

My mom is beaming. “Now that’s some great advice! Sounds like something I’d say.” 

I glare at her, then roll my eyes. “Mom’s got a new catchphrase now. I’m going to be hearing that twice a day.”

Justin laughs. “Well, I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Anyway, I need to go. We going to see you Wednesday?”

I look to my Mom, who indicates it’s my decision, then back to Justin.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be here.”

Author’s note:

I wrote an abbreviated version of this for a flash fiction contest a few years ago. A few years later, I rewrote and expanded the story for publication in the Memphis-themed anthology, Malfunction Junction.

I think Memphis is a lot like a kid going to a wheelchair basketball practice for the first time. Down on his luck, going through some really hard stuff. But also so full of potential, just needing permission to dream of what he could become. That his life isn’t over yet.

That’s what wheelchair sports do for people.

And special thanks to Quain and Al for keeping the team going here in Memphis all this time, despite all we’ve put you guys through 🙂

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