The gym at Comeaux Recreation Center was filled with lively cheers and competitive grunts Saturday as basketball players raced up and down the court, taking shots and battling for the ball. But instead of running, the players rolled.
The Lafayette Parks and Recreation Department hosted the first Southwest Wheelchair Basketball Championship this weekend, featuring four teams from southwest Louisiana and east Texas.
The four teams — the Lafayette Rollin’ Ragin Cajuns, the Corpus Christi Rimz, the Harker Heights Hustlers and the Tyler Thorns — battled for the grand prize of a championship wrestling belt and a year’s worth of bragging rights.
The tournament was the brainchild of Shannon Ravare, a coach and wheelchair basketball player for the Lafayette team. Ravare began playing wheelchair basketball about a dozen years ago after he was paralyzed from the waist down during a motorcycle accident in 2002.
He said he remembers the joy and purpose wheelchair basketball gave him when he first started playing. Ravare said he always played basketball and other sports growing up and reclaiming that after his injury gave him a sense of empowerment.
Access and knowledge are the biggest boundaries to getting disabled people involved in community programs and adaptable sports, he said. Ravare said he wants disabled people to know of the opportunities that are out there for them.
“I feel that’s what the Lord left me on this earth for. My accident was really bad. I’ve seen people with less be gone,” Ravare said. “I was fortunate to be alive, so I see this as my purpose to help motivate people with disabilities and show them it’s not over.”
Lafayette Parks and Recreation therapeutic recreation coordinator Denise Ferguson said Ravare was the catalyst for reviving the wheelchair basketball program three years ago. Since then, the department’s team has grown to a core group of about eight players who practice and travel together to tournaments.
Like other sports, wheelchair basketball has emotional, mental and physical health benefits. It gives players a sense of pride and investment, increases self-esteem and acts as a community builder for disabled athletes who may struggle to meet others like them, Ferguson said.
There are few differences between basketball and wheelchair basketball, she said.
The players must dribble the ball for every two rolls of their wheelchair and players are allotted a score from one to five based on their level of functional ability. The lower the score, the less mobility a player has. A team cannot have more than 12 points worth of players on the court at one time.
Other than that, it’s just as physical and exciting as other sports, she said.
“I think people are surprised and it’s like, why?” Ferguson said. “They’re still people. They just roll.”
Ferguson said it’s been rewarding to help redevelop the program and provide more opportunities to disabled or functionally limited members of the community. Getting to know the players and seeing their growth has been remarkable, she said.
Ferguson said she’s watched Robert Bourque, the team’s first player, go from being getting winded after one lap to having impressive stamina and control.
Bourque has been wheelchair bound over 10 years. Two weeks before he was scheduled to deploy to Iraq with the Louisiana National Guard, Bourque was in a vehicle crash and broke his neck and back.
Bourque said since meeting Ravare and joining the wheelchair basketball team three years ago he’s in the best shape of his life. He enjoys working out, has built lasting friendships and even developed the confidence to begin driving again, he said.
His wife of 10 years, Terry, said participating in wheelchair basketball has brought a positive outlook and independence to her husband’s life and allows him to break stereotypes about wheelchair users.
“It’s made such a big impact on him for the better,” she said. “I’m so glad it’s here.”
Ravare said stories like Bourque’s are why he’s a passionate advocate for adaptive sports. Developing the wheelchair basketball program took time, and sometimes it would be just Ravare and Bourque training together, Ravare said.
But Bourque’s passion and excitement were enough to confirm the need for the program, he said.
“Just Robert alone motivated me. He really took interest and he was so determined and so happy, that kept me going,” Ravare said.
Ravare said he’s especially trying to spread the message of wheelchair sports to young people.
One future player, 10-year-old Eli Judice, subbed into a game for one of Ravare’s players Saturday. He wheeled down the court with the help of a fellow Lafayette player and took several shots while cheered by both teams.
“Good shooting little man,” one player said to Eli as they slapped hands after the game clock ended.
Ann Guillotte, Eli’s grandmother, said he met Ravare several weeks ago and the coach has already suggested drills for the 10-year-old to run. Eli’s always loved basketball and his father, Chad Judice, is a former basketball coach, she said.
When Eli was called into the game, Guillotte and Eli’s older brother Ephraim, 14, were thrilled. Guilotte said the players have embraced her grandson and are giving him something to look forward to.
“You can just see the love in the people and in the guys. They’re embracing him. That smile on his face tells me everything,” she said.
Eli said he wants to start a youth team for other children with disabilities. He plans to call it the Cajun Wheelers and has already designed a jersey for the group.
Ferguson said she’s interested in developing a youth adaptable sports program but said budget constraints and public interest are needed to support it.
Right now, Ferguson said she’s working to keep interest in the adult program going as Ravare prepares to move to Houston next month. The coach has authored a book that’s launching in July, and he plans to work with the larger wheelchair community in the city and promote his inspirational book for the next couple years, he said.
Ravare has been the glue of the Lafayette program, Ferguson said, but she’s keeping hope alive they can maintain the program in Lafayette in his absence.