First Day of Practice

The whole parking lot of the Glenview Community Center in Orange Mound is lined with campaign signs as my brother Darius rolls my wheelchair to the passenger door.

“This shit sounds stupid,” I say.

Darius raises an eyebrow as I pull myself into the chair. “I don’t know man, might be cool.”

The physical therapist told me about the Memphis Rollin’ Grizzlies, these guys who play basketball in wheelchairs. She gave me their coach Al’s number, told me to call, and unfortunately my mom overheard the therapist and made me call because I sure as hell wasn’t going to. At rehab, they knew I used to play ball, so they had me trying to shoot baskets at the hospital’s gym. I could barely get the ball to the net sitting down, and when they started lowering the basket for me, I just left. The thought of seeing a group of grown men in wheelchairs doing the same thing just sounds depressing. 

But here we are.

I hear the basketballs dribbling to my left as we enter the community center. Through double doors, guys in chairs streak past faster than I expect. I give Darius a look.

We sit in the doorway and watch. Practice started thirty minutes ago, but on the phone Al said to get here whenever. He’d kept saying I just needed to get in to see a practice. 

“Alright, boys, back on the line!” Across the gym, a small white man in a wheelchair calls out instructions, and the ten guys push hard down the length of the court, then turn faster than I’ve ever been able to in my chair. The coach waves us over.

After some introductions, Al starts telling us about the game, how most of the rules are the same as “able-bodied” basketball, which is what he calls regular basketball. 

“The hoop is still ten feet?” I ask. 

“Yeah, everything about the court is the same.”

A few minutes later, Al checks his watch. “Alright, gentlemen, get some water!” 

Everyone looks out of breath as they get water and start shooting around. A couple guys come over and introduce themselves: a redhead who towers over us and a light-skinned black guy with long, muscled arms. He looks like he could play professionally if not for his skinny legs.

They ask me questions, and I tell them about my gunshot injury, leaving out the depression that came after I woke up and realized I wasn’t dead but that my life was over. I can tell they feel sad for me, but not sorry for me like everyone else has up to this point.

While I talk, I see a short, white, bearded player roll under the basket and make a reverse layup. A big dude with a du-rag and no legs drains a shot from a few feet behind the three-point line. Then he does it again

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, bro?” Darius 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?” one player says. “We gonna get you out here hoopin’ though.”

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

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

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

“Man, you real fresh,” O says. “This shit don’t get easy, but it gets easier, you know what I’m saying?”

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.

Then I watch him go out there and post people up on the block, and I wonder how he was ever scared. 

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

“Yeah, I’ll be here,” I say, holding back a smile. 

“Alright, welcome to the Grizzlies.”

Author’s note:

I wrote this for a flash fiction contest a few years ago. The only requirements were that it had to be under 750 words and it had to embody Memphis in some way. It didn’t win the contest, but as I’ve been missing playing basketball during the pandemic, I thought I’d share the story.

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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