Basketball team scores with camaraderie

Players must dribble the ball every two pushes.



YOUNGSTOWN — Each Wednesday, when practice begins, Tony Sertick, 41, straps himself into his chair and rolls onto midcourt.

As a founding member of the Hot Wheels wheelchair basketball team, Sertick knows his way around the Central Branch YMCA’s basketball gyms. The team has been practicing there for 20 years.

The nine players who make up the Mahoning Valley squad of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association vary in age and ability.

Sertick — who has limited use of his legs because of a birth defect called spina bifida — once competed in the National Wheelchair Games for weightlifting.

Rick Ackerman, 47 — who was injured while serving stateside in the Air Force — skis in Aspen every year with the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

“Some [players] are more competitive than others,” said Sertick. “I see it as much as a social venue ... It’s almost like a family.”

Their opponents are scattered as far away as Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y. They take turns traveling.

But the four teams that make up the Keystone Conference don’t nurture any long-term grudges, said coach Lindsay Speaker.

“Everybody knows everybody,” she said. “They’ll be going down the court with each other and picking on each other.”

The rules of wheelchair basketball are very similar to the standard game, said Speaker. Players are rarely penalized for traveling.

After every two pushes, they must bounce the ball at least once.

Launching the ball toward the hoop from the seated position takes a great deal of upper-arm strength, said Sertick.

“That combination of trying to push the ball and dribble the ball — it’s something that not just anybody could do,” said Sertick. “It’s a great cardiovascular exercise. You’re basically pushing that chair up and down the court the whole time.”

The team is currently seeking new players to round out its roster. The team has taken to recruiting at Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital and medical suppliers.

“You don’t necessarily have to be in a wheelchair,” said Sertick, who spends his days behind a judge’s bench as a magistrate with the Youngstown Municipal Court. “In fact, I usually walk on crutches. Anyone who has a physical disability that would prevent them from playing regular basketball” is welcome.

The league, Sertick said, promises more than just health benefits.

“I’ve formed a lot of good friends and a lot of good memories over the last 20 years,” he said.

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