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Wheelchair basketball is on the rise so kids can play the sport their own way – The Morning Call

Sportsmanship was on display across Cedar Beach Sunday as the high school basketball tournament, A-Town Throwdown, entered its final rounds.

But on one of the courts, a different kind of passion, courage, and determination blossomed, the kind most high school coaches wish their players.

Katie’s Komets, a wheelchair basketball program, hosted a flagship game there.

While this competition may not have sparked interest in the championship games played later in the day, no competition was more heartwarming or inspiring. In fact, many of the players on the high school teams were keen to go over and have their picture taken with the comets.

“It really raised awareness for wheelchair basketball,” said Allen High Tournament Director and Athletic Director Randy Atiyeh. “I’ve been notified by several people about how to get their son or daughter involved.”

On their Facebook page, Katie’s Komets say their mission is to provide a co-educational wheelchair basketball team for children with physical disabilities. The organization caters to children from elementary school to high school. The program does not require a child to be a full-time wheelchair user or even own a wheelchair. The only requirement is that the child has a permanent physical disability that prevents them from participating in a regular basketball program and is able to operate a manual wheelchair.

The wheelchair players are divided into two divisions. The prep division goes from 5 to 13 years and they play 8 foot baskets. The varsity section for children ages 13 to 18 uses the standard 10 foot high baskets.

“A lot of kids get out of their wheelchairs and walk in some way,” said Chris Kile, the prep team coach. “But most of them use a wheelchair every day.”

Kile said Joe Kirlin started the program for his daughter who was battling cancer.

“Katie was really interested in all sports, not just basketball, but she became paralyzed, so her parents started this program and kept the foundation going after her death in 1989,” Kile said. “But that’s where the name Katie’s comet comes from.”

Earlier this year, the 24th Katie Kirlin Youth Wheelchair Tournament was held in Philadelphia.

While the organization is based in Philadelphia and many of the kids are from Philadelphia and the suburbs, some families from the Lehigh Valley are also involved, and A-Town Throwdown wanted to raise awareness so kids who want to play have more options .

“Tanya Garcia, a family friend and Allentown School District parent, reached out to me before our tournament and expressed how much wheelchair basketball has helped her son with his confidence and spirit. She also explained to me that they have to travel for hours just to get training time with their coach and to play in wheelchairs with other student-athletes. It made perfect sense to promote their sport at our event.”

The Comets didn’t disappoint, playing just as hard as the teams battling for the A-Town Throwdown titles.

“We probably play about 30 games in a season, all in a tournament format,” Kile said. “We have to go all over the east coast and play four or five games in a weekend. But they make it because they love to play.

“The most important thing I see in wheelchair basketball is camaraderie. The Komets play with a team from New York and they all get along. They’re building a community where they can push and encourage each other and that’s the most important thing because not all of these kids want to pursue that at the highest level like I did. But everyone can still benefit from being part of the community.”

Kile, a graduate of Quakertown High School and Edinboro University, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of 5. He tried his hand at the Olympic wheelchair team and played professionally in Italy, where he won a national championship.

“I’ve played wheelchair basketball my whole life and met a lot of people, so I know this program is important,” Kile said. “My parents didn’t want to place me and I tried handicapped sports. When I discovered wheelchair basketball, it showed me that I could compete like any other kid.

“When I wasn’t performing, I struggled to keep up. But wheelchair basketball gave me an opportunity to feel that freedom and made me more involved with people who were involved in the same things as me.”

Kile said the game is played pretty much like what’s played at the youth, high school, collegiate, and pro levels.

A player may push his wheelchair and bounce the ball at the same time. If the ball is lifted and/or placed on the player’s lap, he may only push twice before having to shoot, pass or dribble the ball again. There is no double dribbling rule, but a player may be called to travel if he makes more than two shots while in possession of the ball without dribbling. A player must not touch the surface with his feet while in possession of the ball.

Kile said traditional basketball lovers like the fact that the wheelchair game is a “pass, pick and go game.”

“Kids are definitely empowered by playing basketball, and I tell them that if they can move around the basketball court, they can do all of the day-to-day things that Mom and Dad could do for them,” Kile said. “It’s really a platform for independence and you can really find out what your body can do. They move around fairly well in these wheelchairs and being children they don’t get tired. They’re out here in the heat and they don’t mind. You don’t save energy. They want to play and have fun.”

Atiyeh wouldn’t mind making wheelchair basketball a regular part of the A-Town Throwdown.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see,” he said. “We let our referees edit the game and they too got to know the different rules. Students stopped by to watch and I was proud of how our community came together to make it happen. I hope it helps and shows that we need better access for children to play closer to home. Who knows? Maybe next is a wheelchair league in the Lehigh Valley.”

The team is a member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and practices Saturdays at the Carousel House in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Katie’s Komets also hosts a regional tournament in Philadelphia each January, featuring teams from Florida and Indiana.

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