Sunday, June 7, 2009

Magic on the Court - Feature

This was one of the first pieces I did that I was thoroughly proud of. It was a hoot hanging out with these guys, and I did my best to make sure their personalities came out in the piece. Ever since, it became a standard in my pieces to do that.

It’s a typical Thursday night at Champion Johnnie Community Center in Jackson. Four men are playing a fast pickup basketball game. Shouts ring out: “Go to the net!” “Right here!” “Shoot!” Their voices echo off the walls, mixing with the squeak of rubber against the floor. The ball travels from hand to hand before James Clayton grabs it and takes a quick shot. The ball bounces off the rim and back. Clayton and another player, Bob Woods, grab for it. Both barely touch it, but the ball bounces past and out of bounds.

Clayton and Woods both race to the ball and immediately start arguing about which of them, if either, touched it and who touched it last. Clayton finally ends the argument by simply throwing the ball inbounds to his teammate. Woods races by and yells:

“He’s a cheater! Put that in the story!”

Clayton laughs, missing his shot. Woods tries to keep a straight face while he trash-talks Clayton, but can’t. He breaks up laughing even after continuing to rag his opponent. The good-natured squabbling continues. The men rebound, pass, pick-and-roll, block, foul, shoot, and score. After forty-five minutes of hard half-court play, the game ends and the four athletes start over to the sidelines.

The men push themselves to the bleachers. When they arrive, all four are tired, but all are smiling. Their wheelchairs may be a tiny bit more battered from the game, but all are still intact.

James Clayton is the team representative for the Mississippi Magic, Jackson’s own member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. He plays forward and has the upper body of a pro ball player: shaved head, broad shoulders, and muscular arms. The fact that he plays from a wheelchair becomes somewhat unimportant.

“It was a spinal cord injury,” he says. “It’s been about twenty-three years ago. Gunshot wound right here,” he taps the center of his chest. “Right in my heart. I lost a kidney and a lung.”
“I was on a respirator, kidney dialysis,” he says, speaking about the time not long after he had been shot. Clayton had participated in track-and-field in Memphis before the injury. He was hospitalized for one year. A friend, Ivey Earley, introduced him to wheelchair basketball when he was discharged. Today, both Earley and Clayton play on the same team. Clayton says the sport has been a vital part of his life and his health.

“It helps build my lung and makes it a lot stronger. It’s really been a lifesaver.” In fact, the sport has become so much a part of his life that his body requires it. “Without them, this time of year would be rough. When I’m not working out, I have respiratory problems.”

Alfred Woods, who also plays forward, agrees.

“I find that anytime I just quit for a little while, I find myself having illnesses. My body’s just used to being active.” Johnson is a ten-year veteran of wheelchair basketball, and has been playing with the Magic since its inception. He has been in a wheelchair for twelve years.

“I was cleaning a machine out over at Tyson and someone turned it on when I was inside,” Johnson tells us. “It was called a chiller, a big, huge machine where the chickens drop off to cool. There’s blades and stuff in it. It threw me around, up in there. Ruined my spinal cord.”

Bob Woods is actually the coach of the Mississippi Magic, and has been so for five years. A victim of polio, he began playing wheelchair basketball in 1977 in Portland, Oregon. He came to Jackson in 1991, and has been an active member of the community ever since. Woods suffered injuries to his hand and arm a few years ago, requiring surgery. He gave up playing regularly to become the team coach. He is still proud of his hoop skills.

“I was a Tasmanian rebounder and passer,” he says. “I was the Dennis Rodman-type guy. ‘Go get the ball.’ Give it to the man who can shoot. All I wanted to do is to play with somebody who can shoot the ball.”

Arm injury or not, Woods can still shoot, and he can still play. He pressed Clayton hard, occasionally locking their chairs together. Whenever that happened, everyone would stop and untangle them before continuing play. Clayton points to a gap in the frame of his chair.

“Bob, he knows,” he says, grinning. “One thing I can say about him…” he laughs. “I can say…you know…he’s a dirty player.” Woods denies this loudly while everyone else laughs. He finally joins in, reminding me that Clayton is a cheater. The laughter increases.

The Mississippi Magic is a member of the Division III Gulf Coast Conference, which includes teams in Gulfport; New Orleans; Lafayette, Louisiana; Beaumont, Texas; Austin, Texas; and Montgomery, Alabama. The Magic also regularly plays non-conference games with Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, Tennessee.

This weekend, the team plays Jackson twice on Saturday at Champion. The community center is more than just where they practice, it is also where they compete.

The Magic fields a team of fourteen players, between the ages of 23 and 56. The last few seasons have all been winning ones. This one continues the pattern; the Magic are 10-4, with only one conference loss. NWBA seasons run from September to February, which means the teams are beginning their run to the final tournaments. The team’s goal this year is to make it to the national tournament in Bloomington, Indiana.

To get there, to play in the rest of the games and tourneys that will take them there, the team needs about ten thousand dollars to do so. Collecting money for the season is a challenge that the team has to meet every season. Not only does the team have the usual financial problems: gas, motel rooms, food, uniforms, and so on; but they have to pay for things you may have never thought about.

Athletes do not typically use standard wheelchairs. The chairs can’t stand up to the punishment of a basketball game. Good athletic chairs have their wheels canted out for better performance, allowing them better agility and quickness on the floor. The problem is that the chairs are wider than the standard 32-inch doorway, which makes them impossible to use in one’s own house, or even in most businesses.

The average sports wheelchair costs between two and three thousand dollars. Tubes for the tires cost around $100. In fact, several members of the team need completely new wheelchairs.
“We’ve played it tight. It’s been close,” Woods says. “But there hasn’t been a trip we haven’t been able to make. We’ve been really blessed. The general public in Jackson and the surrounding areas really support us.” But even with that, things aren’t easy. Speaking of last weekend’s trip to Tennessee:

“We’re short this weekend, but we’re pulling in together for the motel. We’re leaving some of us behind to make this tournament.”

Fielding a team out of Jackson proves more difficult than in some cities.

“Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta; these teams are being sponsored by the professional basketball teams. Where here in Mississippi, we don’t have a professional basketball team,” Woods says.

To keep going, the team, a non-profit group, accepts charitable donations of any size. Clayton says the team receives support from Wal-Mart, and from Kroger in Brandon. But their largest sponsor is the Mississippi Paralysis Association, who gives them five thousand dollars every year. Natalie Ellis, president of the MPA, says they are delighted to sponsor the team.

“It brings a lot of public awareness. It also benefits the people who are injured. It encourages them to take part and shows them that they can still participate in activities that they enjoyed before they were injured.” The MPA also helps sponsor rugby and hockey teams in the state.
Woods says the Magic doesn’t even charge admission to games. “We just ask for donations. Basically, we just want to get people to get out and get involved with the team, and to give them general support.”

To return that support, the Magic doesn’t let the end of the season mean the end of the team’s work. They play all year, switching to exhibition games in early spring. The team goes to schools and plays games against the teachers, or students, or basketball players. The team will spot them fifty points or so and put the other players in wheelchairs.

“The kids always look forward to it,” Clayton says. The team uses the exhibition games as fundraisers, splitting the money raised with the school. They use the opportunity to inform the children about living in a wheelchair, about understanding those people who do, and about avoiding situations that could put them at risk. They also use the opportunity to speak directly to children who are disabled.

“We try to encourage them. You don’t stop. You can go to school, you can work and be active. You can live a normal life,” Clayton says.

“Come out and see the games,” Woods suggests. “You’ll definitely enjoy it. There’s a lot of action, a lot of fun. The people who come really enjoy seeing us play.” He smiles. “It’s as good as pro ball on television.”

The team may not have the roster, and they may not have all the equipment they desire. The team does need support, both financial and spiritual. Come out, watch a game, meet the players, and find out why – both on the court and off – these athletes are Magic.

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