It seems like a set-piece charity event. Wounded veterans playing wheelchair basketball against a team of Coronado City employees, and another crew from Loews’ Coronado Hotel staff. The mayor has turned up, the ex-mayor has agreed to referee. Loews Hotel has also fielded their Good Neighbors team and contributed a slap-up BBQ lunch for the players, and, for a $25 contribution, to the rest of the small crowd here, to go to the C4 Foundation (named after Charles Keating IV, who died in 2016 in Iraq), for Navy Seals family support.
It’s a milky but occasionally scorching sun beating down on the blue tennis courts. Both teams are out there practicing. The Wounded Warrior Wolfpack whizz their wheelchairs around like dodgems. At the other end, the City employees are less sure of their wheelwork. There’s a bit of colliding going on. And they’re realizing how launching a ball into a basket from a sitting position is no picnic. “Not as easy as it looks,” says Council Member Bill Sandke. He’s giving the commentary today. What you notice, though, is how hugely muscular most of the Wolves are in their upper bodies. You also notice that most of the players have lost legs. Some, one, some two. You have to think IED, Iraq, Afghanistan. And yet these guys are loud and cheery. Each has strapped himself tight around his waist, so he’ll stay with the chair. They know what they’re doing: they have just won the Naval Medical Center San Diego Division II Championship for the US and Canada. The civilians, you think, are going to be lambs to the slaughter.
“It’s down to you!” yells somebody to ex-mayor Casey Tanaka. Everybody knows what that means: He’s going to have to put his foot on the scales to keep any hope of a contest here.
Casey blows his whistle and tosses the ball in. And suddenly you realize how athletic this is. Guys race-wheeling their chairs, reaching way out to catch an incoming ball, avoiding collisions, tossing ahead, and, hey, not getting their fingers mashed in their own wheel spokes. The Wolves are as smooth and swift as the Harlem Globetrotters.
When a Coronado guy actually does score, Casey finds a way to award them 3, 4, 5 points for effort. “Not a problem!” says Perry Price, who lost a leg when he was serving in the US Army. The Wolfpack play two 7-minute halves against Coronado, then take on the Loews team for another game. Meanwhile, the rest of us slowly guzzle Prosecco or beer, and nibble on chicken.
The only grabber is at the end. When all the exercise, all the joshing, all the hand-shaking is done, the civilians stand up. They rise out of their borrowed wheelchairs and are whole again. They walk. They skip. They beat a retreat to their families. The Wolfpack, no. For them, the wheelchair is the reality. Some roll over to where they’ve left prosthetic legs leaning against the boundary fence. Then some get up on those legs and head for the buffet. Others, not.