Rita palmed the sweat out of her eyes and pushed her wheelchair down the court as fast as she could. Her teammate passed the basketball, and she lined up for the shot.
Easy, breezy, she told herself. I’ve made this one a thousand times.
Crash! The chair hit hers and Rita let the ball go just in time. She hit the floor, and a gasp flashed through the crowd like lightning. Then a thunderous cheer told her that her aim was true. Three points closer to victory. Rita scrambled back into her wheelchair and rolled down the court, anxious for the next pass.
“Lucky shot! Filet those sharks! Filet those sharks!” The well-feathered mascot for the Raptors wheeled along the sideline yelling his smart-alek comments with annoying constancy. Rita really wanted to knock him out of his chair, but she wanted to win more.
Thirteen seconds left, but they were only down by a point. If she could hit two or three more shots like the last one, she’d feel safe, but one would win it. The muscle-bound Raptor with the two-foot mound of weave atop her head took her shot. It was good. Now they were down by three again, so she couldn’t miss.
“Rita Laye cannot play. Sharks are going to drown today.” The Raptor mascot did his best to distract Rita, but his squawking faded into the crowd sounds, like a TV left on too long.
The pass came, as Rita knew it would. Ms. Muscles tried to steal the ball, but Rita reversed and drew herself back to three-point territory. Her territory. Up went the ball and Swish! Nothing but net. Seven seconds left, and they were tied.
The defense blocked the Raptors and forced a Hail Mary, but the redheaded Raptor threw too soon, and the rebound was off the rim and in Rita’s hands with two seconds to spare. She hefted it to her best friend, Amy, a center with a gift for free throws who was rolling toward the basket at breakneck speed.
“Please hit it!” Rita whispered.
The lay-up was beautiful, and the two points they needed came as the buzzer sounded.
Amy threw her hands up and glared at the nearby Raptors mascot. “Rita Laye sure can play! Now the Raptors may fly away.” She flapped her arms like a bird for emphasis.
The team rolled themselves into a circle and high-fived all around. They were district champions who had just become second seed in the final four. Coach jumped around like a kid at the county fair, fist-bumping the players and screaming, “Shark Bait! Shark Bait!” right along with them.
Rita rolled over to “good game” the other team and made sure to give the mascot an extra hard slap on the palm as she passed him. She looked through the mesh that allowed him to see and noted that his nose was much like a falcon’s, large and hooked, and it took all of her self control not to comment on it as she rolled off the floor. Rita pushed hard for the locker room. She wanted a shower badly, but more than that, she was waiting for information from her coach on her qualification for the 2020 Olympic games.
Usually, the Paralympic athletic events followed the Olympics and received very little coverage. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) traditionally allowed exhibition events only during the Olympics though Paralympic athletes were every bit as elite as the ones who got all the media attention…
Fran Says: I saw my first wheelchair basketball game when I was about 21 years old. My sister was the one with the golden arm, and I saw several players knocked from their chairs. Talk about roller derby meets basketball! I loved it. My sister was MVP 5 years in a row, and went on to race in 10 or 11 Boston Marathons, winning 8 of them. I have never seen anybody with the drive Jean has. When she told me that the US Olympic Committee had changed its name to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, I was thrilled. Imagine this group of elite athletes finally getting their due. Almost. In truth, their events still happen AFTER the regular Olympic Games. But there’s hope that the world will follow the USA and include the Paralympic athletes as equals. I can dream.