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Wheelchair basketball tournament raises funds for team

Jacob Tyree, who works as a Roanoke County schools IT technician, was on the United States U23 Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Team from 2013 to 2014 and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a graduate of Glenvar High School. (Photo: STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS)

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Give Caitlin Blankenship a lacrosse stick, and she’s in her element.

Give the Roanoke College senior a basketball and put her in a wheelchair, not so much.

Blankenship, like just about everybody else who played in a wheelchair basketball tournament in the college’s Bast Center, is a college athlete without physical disabilities.

Those seeming advantages didn’t amount to much when they took the floor to raise money for the fledgling Roanoke Stars wheelchair basketball team.

“It’s frustrating,” said Blankenship, 22, from Urbanna, Virginia. “It makes you think about people who have to move around this way all the time. It’s very humbling.”

That’s part of what tournament organizer Jacob Tyree was going for — another venue for his broader mission of changing perceptions of people with disabilities. That and raising money to buy basketball wheelchairs for the Stars team.

“It’s changing those stereotypes of people with disabilities,” said Tyree, a paralympian in the sport who played at the University of Illinois.

He’s now an IT and network technician at Glenvar High School, his alma mater, and coach and co-founder of the Stars team.

When people play or even just see wheelchair basketball or other adaptive sports, he said, it destroys perceptions that people with disabilities are helpless.

Tyree, 25, has never perceived himself that way.

He was diagnosed with a large tumor on his spine at 9. After multiple surgeries failed to remove it all, and with only months remaining before the cancer killed him, he opted for the then-radical option of having his lower spinal cord removed, and the tumor with it.

It paralyzed him from his middle torso down, but he’s been cancer-free ever since, he said.

Shortly after the surgery, as he was learning to live with his disability, players from the Charlottesville Cardinals wheelchair basketball team brought some basketball wheelchairs to the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center, where he was recovering. Tyree, a talented athlete, latched onto the sport right away and excelled at it.

He played on a team based in Charlotte and won a full scholarship to play the game at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Since returning home to work, he’s been playing for the Charlottesville team that inspired him. But traveling that far is demanding, so he hopes to get the Stars up to competition level quickly.

The team has interested athletes, Tyree said, but the cost of a competition wheelchair is a major barrier for many who would like to play.

A low-end model starts at $2,000. They’re built of lightweight titanium, with guards to absorb collisions on the court and wheels cambered out widely to lower the center of gravity.

Tyree hoped the event would raise enough for one chair, though he’s got four team members waiting on them.

Tyree’s girlfriend is Sarah Schwartz, the daughter of Roanoke College women’s lacrosse coach Mary Schwartz, and they all worked together to host the event, which they hope to do annually, at the college.

Word went out to the community and the college campus to enter teams. Tyree’s Charlottesville team supplied chairs for entrants in 3-on-3 half-court games.

Most of the 16 teams that entered were made up of athletes on Roanoke College NCAA sports teams — lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, and others — though not all.

Blankenship’s adjustments to playing from a chair were typical.

“It’s hard,” she said. “A lot of thinking.” Simply maneuvering making required dribbles after every two pushes on the wheels — a rule that was very loosely enforced — required constant thought.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Matt Lintner, a men’s lacrosse player at Roanoke, originally from Houston, Texas. He’s a beefy 6-foot-4, but he tossed up a few airballs well short of the basket to start. The game required different muscles and more strength than he anticipated. “It’s almost like a new sport.”

“It’s a workout,” said Herby Tranquille, 23, who lives in Roanoke and was asked to join a team. He knew wheelchair players were serious athletes, but they climbed in his estimation after just one 10-minute game Saturday.

“I respect them,” he said. “I really respect them.”

At the end of the day, it was a team powered by Tyree’s father and brother that won it all over a team from the Roanoke College women’s volleyball team.

And in the most important result, the event raised $1,741, Tyree said.

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