Team Marine Corps basketballers play to win at Warrior Games
By CARLOS BONGIOANNI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 19, 2015
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — It was billed as a friendly basketball game between Team Marine Corps and a handful of media who had come to cover the 2015 Warrior Games.
But as the Marines did warm-up drills in their wheelchairs, it became clear that this wouldn’t be a fair fight. The media players were going to humiliate themselves, and the Marines knew it.
After all, these are trained wounded warriors who have come to this weeklong competition to win.
“They’re the toughest,” assistant coach Jaime Baltazar said.
‘This brings me up’
Matt Grashen, 25, grew up in Chicago playing basketball, which for him is a “huge sport.” This is his first year competing in the Warrior Games, after he lost his legs when he stepped on an IED in 2013 in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
The medically retired Marine, who lives in San Diego, said the challenge of competing plays an important role in his life.
“It’s good to get out and play a sport that I love with other Marines. For me, it’s all about staying competitive, staying in shape … and meeting new people.” Teammates call him the Weatherman, for all the shots he rains down.
Adam Vickery, 40, has been playing with the Marine wheelchair basketball team for two years. He’s known as the Brawler, for his rough and tumble ways. “I’ve broken five (wheel) chairs since we’ve been here,” he said with a laugh. A massive IED blast in Iraq that rolled the 7-ton truck he was in left him with traumatic brain injury and chronic headaches. The medically retired Marine, who said he has had 33 surgeries, hopes to become a starter by next year.
“With the head injury, every day seems to be a new day. So I forget a lot of things … the motions, the plays,” he said. Playing on the team for the last two years has improved his game, he said: “I’ve got a lot of muscle memory going on.”
For him, the best thing about the Warrior Games is the camaraderie. “This is a chance that I get to come out of my shell and actually hang out with my brothers. This brings me up,” he said. “It’s my way of getting all the negative tension built up inside, and I get to push it out.”
Challenges of the game
Wheelchair basketball is one of eight adaptive sports for wounded, ill or injured servicemembers or vets in the Games, a Paralympic-style competition. About 250 athletes, included British Armed Forces, will compete. Seeded basketball games start Saturday, with finals on Tuesday.
As the media prepared to play on Thursday, they were given wheelchairs and taught more about the game.
The rules are similar to those in regular basketball. Dribbling is a little different in the wheelchair version. If the ball is in a player’s possession, the player has up to two pushes or touches of the wheel before the ball must be bounced, passed or shot.
The five media players strapped themselves into their wheelchairs and practiced pushing, turning and shooting. As one of the players, sweat formed on my forehead and my undershirt was almost soaked after just a few minutes. I quickly figured out that I shouldn’t consume too much energy in practice or I wouldn’t make it up and down the court during the game.
The organizers must have seen how woefully inadequate we were. When time came to take to the court, three of us were told to join two Marines at one end, and three others were told to join two Marines at the opposite end.
What I feared would be a challenge turned into more of a friendly pickup game. No one was keeping score.
Baltazar, 32, knows what his players are physically up against every time they take the court. He played on the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball team and won “a couple of championships,” he said, after he was shot in Chicago at 17 and left paralyzed from the waist down.
He considers it “a blessing” to coach the Marine team, which won the event at last year’s Warrior Games.
“They’re the baddest, and they’re going for the gold.”