They Were All Witnesses

Tragedy brought the Wheelchair Cavaliers together. Brotherhood keeps them together

Suicide drills don't sting so badly when you can tell the world you're national champs.

So Steve Smutak careens down the basketball court strapped to his wheelchair, ferociously pushing and whooshing from one end to the other. He reaches the basket and glides for a moment, then spins and exuberantly cruises back to the other side.

It's a new season, and this time it's unbelievable. He's playing for a national championship team. That's right, man, he will tell you if you ask: the Cleveland Wheelchair Cavaliers, 2009-2010 champions in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. The team that stared death in the eyes after losing to the Detroit Diehards in a double-elimination tournament in Denver last April.

Then they roared back to win three straight, each by double digits. They met Detroit again in the title game and turned the tables on their nemesis. When the buzzer sounded, Smutak felt like he was floating, his body in Denver, his mind gliding through space, wafting through memories of 25 years ago when he played with the old Cleveland Comets at Cleveland State's Woodling Gym.

In those days, you played on dilapidated hospital wheelchairs, and guys — your own guys — would clothesline you, knocking you on your ass. Memories of a quarter-century of wheelchair ball drifted through his mind: the lopsided losses, the trash talk, and the fights. None of it mattered now. He played for the national champions.

In the wake of their victory, Smutak e-mailed Dan Gilbert, whose Cavaliers are a key sponsor. "The Cavaliers, the NBA team, may have lost, but your wheelchair team just brought home the first national championship to Cleveland since 1964 when the Cleveland Browns won," he wrote. Gilbert responded in kind, giving every member of the team a championship ring.

Smutak got one. So did Dan "Sparkles" Lemmer, the cherubic 17-year-old Brecksville High School senior who plays competitive sled hockey in addition to wheelchair ball. Teammates gave him the nickname because the front wheels on his chair last year were outfitted with little sparkling lights.

Drew Lacko — who was paralyzed riding a dirt bike but still rides one because "what else can happen to me?" — got a ring. Will Waller, the graceful 6-foot-5 Paralympics superstar who scored 22 points in the championship, received a ring. And coach Tim Fox, who works by day with developmentally disabled children, got one too.

But that was April. With a new season set to begin, the team faces a new set of challenges. One of their star players moved to California. Lacko and Shawn Kravchuck are on injured-reserve. Like their NBA counterparts, the Wheelchair Cavs recognize they lack the talent and the spark that set them apart last year. But unlike Cleveland's NBA team, these Cavaliers still have their king.

The euphony of the name — Will Waller — is replicated in his physical presence. He sits straight up in the chair, never slouching. With his red-haired crew cut, chiseled frame, and angular features, he commands authority. But his boyish grin and goofy banter make him one of the guys, a quality he harnesses to inspire younger players. Waller was a star on the University of Illinois' wheelchair team, perennially one of the titans in all of collegiate ball. He played on the United States team that won gold in the World Wheelchair Basketball Championship Games in 1998 and the U.S. team that did the same at the 2009 Pan-Am Games. Even at 37, he remains competitive.

Waller's teammates know well of his achievements, and they revere him to the point of sycophancy. "He's a pure athlete, a pure competitor," says Smutak. "The guy doesn't stress under pressure. Man, he brought everybody up to a different level by the things he showed us."

The pure athlete is also the director of human resources of Goodyear's North American consumer tires division. He married an able-bodied woman (the lingua franca of wheelchair culture), lives in Hudson, and has two young children.

If he is the team's most valuable player, he is also its most cryptic when it comes to discussing what brought him here. Waller lost the ability to walk after putting himself in the wrong place during a violent melée in Chicago in 1992, as he puts it. He doesn't like to revisit the details, saying only that the accident changed his outlook on life, addicting him to hard work for himself and others.

Waller wasn't a standout jock before his injury; only afterward did he develop his game. In keeping with the predominant culture of wheelchair basketball, Waller is relentlessly positive.

"What we need to do is build our cohesiveness as a team, so our team orientation has to augment or supplement what we lost from an individual capability perspective," he says. It would all sound very phony from the mouth of anyone else. But it wears well on Waller — it's part of his armor, his post-traumatic social skin.

The Cavaliers practice for three hours most Saturday mornings at the Twinsburg Fitness Center, in addition to Wednesday evenings spent at Quicken Loans Arena. Each player rolls in with two chairs: their regular one and a mobile titanium model, which has tilted rear wheels and wheel camber for greater stability. Some players drive themselves to practice in cars specially suited for their chairs, while others take public transit or get rides with parents.

Practices have a certain rhythm. Players arrive around 9, switch chairs, and begin shooting layups and foul shots, and passing to each other. Parents and friends stand in the back, gabbing or joking with one another. Among players, gimp humor is a reliable go-to move.

Life's inequities — gunshot wounds, dirt bike crashes, car accidents, and cancer — have brought otherwise very different people together, interweaving their lives and intertwining their hopes. Through the strange cacophony of wheelchair basketball, a group of strangers has forged a common purpose and gained an odd but gratifying camaraderie.

Many players can't make practice because of injuries, work, or transportation problems. But Sparkles Lemmer rolls in without fail, always accompanied by one or both of his parents, Susan and Don — "Mr. and Mrs. Sparkles," as Smutak calls them.

Cheerful and plucky, Lemmer was born with spina bifida and lost some of his ability to walk with crutches a few years back. But his parents hope he can regain enough mobility to pick up his own high school diploma in the spring.

Lemmer has friends at school, but he's closer to his teammates. "Sports are my life," he says. He has played on a regional sled hockey team, the Mid-American Eagles, winning three junior national championships along the way.

"The disabled athlete is still an athlete," Don Lemmer says as his son shoots. Stocky and muscular, Don Lemmer played nationally competitive softball and is clearly delighted that his boy shares his spirit.

Sparkles joined the Cavs as a ball boy when he was 10. Sled hockey captured his enthusiasm over the ensuing years, but a friendship with a former Wheelchair Cavalier rekindled his interest in hoops. He joined the team as soon as he was old enough: during the magical 2009-2010 season. He learned a lot, traveled with the team last year, and played briefly in the title game.

"That's awesome, to be 17 and have a national championship ring," Mom says.

"First championship in franchise history," Dad chimes in.

Wheelchair basketball began more than 60 years ago as an outlet for injured veterans of World War II, and plenty of vets still play. The sport has grown exponentially over the past 30 years; today, there are more than 200 teams in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Although the league has no connection to the NBA, pro franchises sponsor wheelchair teams.

The NBA Cavaliers cover many of the wheelchair team's expenses, along with the Cleveland Clinic and the locally based wheelchair manufacturer Invacare. All three share the bill when the team drives to games in southern Ohio or Pittsburgh, or flies to tournaments in Denver, New York City, and Las Vegas (the Wheelchair Cavs have no "home" court). They pick up the hotel tab and the team's uniforms: home whites, and wine and gold on the road — just like their NBA namesake.

The Cavs' division has more than 75 teams, with over 900 players from around the country. Players are permitted to compete provided that they have "an irreversible lower extremity disability which consistently interferes with functional mobility." Games in the Cavs' division consist of two 20-minute halves, like college ball, with referees who apply rules more stringently than they did in the 1980s, back when guys would regularly pummel each other. The 18-page rulebook addresses everything from legal height of the seat rail to incidental contact between chairs to what constitutes traveling in a league where nobody has usable legs. (Answer: A player gets called for traveling if he pushes off his wheelchair more than twice in succession without dribbling the ball.)

In its competitiveness and skill level — try shooting a basket from a rolling chair sometime — wheelchair ball is fundamentally similar to its able-bodied equivalent. Yet there are obvious points of departure, in addition to the Hemingwayesque difference (NBA players make more money).

"When you're able-bodied and you have the ability to play the game on your feet, you have lateral-movement abilities," Coach Fox explains. "When you're in a wheelchair, you don't have lateral movement and capabilities, which play a big role in how you play the game."

Three-point plays occupy a smaller role in wheelchair ball than they do in the NBA, simply because firing up a ball from such a distance is a herculean achievement. But like the NBA, some teams rely more than others on long-range shooting. Fox mentions Mike Adams, a prolific outside shooter for the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers. "One game he can go 0-for-7," says Fox, "but the next game he can go for 8-for-10."

When the Cavaliers need an outside bucket, their go-to guy is Will Waller.

"Kraaatky!" Waller cries out, exaggerating the lonely vowel in the name of Erik Kratky, a rail-thin, bearded 25-year-old who has just joined the team. Vince Momosor bursts into laughter as Waller calls Kratky over. Observing that the newcomer's chair frame is too large to fit a player so skinny, he says, "You ought to go back to that therapist and say, 'You owe me a new wheelchair.'"

Kratky's lost a lot of weight over the last several years. It all started suddenly during the winter of 2007. A student at Kent State University, he was boarding a bus to get to class one frigid evening when he collapsed into three feet of snow and was unable to pull himself out.

It wasn't a sprain or a broken bone, but two benign tumors. They had grown to such a size that they shut down his spinal cord. Kratky had to drop out of school and undergo physical therapy five days a week for six months en route to a full recovery.

But in fall 2009, while he was a graduate student in finance at Georgia Tech, the tumors came back — 14 of them. All were cancerous, and chemo was required. Doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of survival. But the big guy from Brook Park — who had always played basketball and never had any doubt he'd be back shooting hoops somehow — pulled through.

In May came the news that Kratky's cancer is in remission. The next scan is November 30, and his mother Kathleen says emphatically that the outcome will be the same. "There's no doubt in our minds — or his," she says with boundless optimism, the emotional currency of wheelchair basketball.

The radiation produced the usual hair loss, so Kratky sports the bald spot of a middle-aged man. He can get about with a walker, and he figures to be walking with a cane soon, though he knows he won't run again. Yet he smiles more than anyone else at practice, a natural by-product of knowing you've got cancer licked.

"Going from able-bodied ball to wheelchair ball is a big change," he says. "Shooting is completely different. You go from having legs and being able to jump, and from being probably a foot and a half to two feet taller, to sitting down, rolling in a chair. Dribbling is different, passing is different, all the rules are different, but it's still a game I love."

Tim Fox is a matter-of-fact guy who seems genuinely devoted to helping disabled athletes improve their mental and physical skills. He would have to be — there's not a penny to be made as coach of a wheelchair basketball team.

But there's more scheduling and budgeting and mentoring and recruiting than any one man can do, so Fox relies heavily on Waller and Smutak — and particularly Waller, knowing that he has both the technical and leadership skills to run practices.

Recruiting younger players is a major focus this year, and Fox and Waller boast that they helped build Ohio's first junior wheelchair team. So far, he's recruited about ten players between the ages of 8 and 17, who live everywhere from Wooster to Canton to Parma. In December, they'll begin playing games of their own.

Fox hopes several of them will be ready to help the Cavaliers later this year, but he knows how competitive the big guys can be. Players ram each other's chairs to get position. They smack other players as they lunge for rebounds. And their schedule is relentless: Last season, practices began in mid-summer and the season consisted of 45 games.

But Fox knows this season will be different, in light of the lost players, the injuries, and the inexperience. They didn't start practice until mid-September, and their schedule includes only 30 games. They will rise or fall based on how well Waller and Smutak play, and by how quickly the newcomers and the wounded find their game

Waller has been called out of town on business, so practice on this October morning is in the hands of Smutak. Everybody knows him, and they talk — sometimes joke — about his ultra-competitive streak.

"Steve can let the competitiveness get in his head, which can be a bad thing," Fox says. "The anger will come out, and we all joke about it. 'Good Steve, bad Steve,' we'll say."

Smutak knows he has his dark moments, but he's grown accustomed to wrestling with them. Anger, after all, is a natural product of a man who has been paralyzed for 44 of his 46 years. Two months before his second birthday, he was chasing his brothers and sisters around the hilly yard at his home in Macedonia. A car was parked at the top of the driveway, and another sat at the bottom of the hill. A nine-year-old cousin accidentally released the car's emergency brake, sending it rolling downhill. Smutak was pinned between the two bumpers. It burst his spleen and severed his spinal cord. He stopped breathing until his mother revived him with CPR.

The guy has played wheelchair ball since he was 18. He graduated from the University of Akron and earned a master's in social science administration from Case Western Reserve. He is a therapist who counsels adults and runs a recreation program for the disabled.

Smutak wears the droop of middle age but the energy of a child. He is intense, with deep-set eyes that make him look like he's pondering a problem. He can be stone-faced when talking of his past, but he'll belt out an infectious laugh when recalling '80s-style ball ("crazy times back in the day").

He is a complex guy — stoical, even philosophical off the court, but he confesses to merciless trash-talking on it. This will be his 29th season, and he has no interest in packing it in.

It's about getting in the zone, he will tell you. It's about focusing all your energy on the breakaway layup or the guy you're guarding, so that the gimp insults they hurl don't get into your head.

It's about intensity, so that when guys start fighting, you don't let it get to you. It's about the competitive intensity that distances him from the mental hobgoblins of an earlier time. "Wheelchair basketball changed me and turned me into the person I am today," he says. "It really did."

Smutak sees some of the same opportunities in the younger players, whom he eyes as they shoot during a break in another intense practice. Lemmer is there — he's always there — along with Kratky and Momosor. So are Erik Whetstone and Mark Daurelio, two veterans returning from injuries that sidelined them from last year's championship drive.

Daurelio rolls in with his daughter, Jenna, a talkative 14-year-old who wears sandals covering green polished toes. She knows everybody and occasionally travels with the team. "They're my little protector people," she says.

Daurelio, 39 and muscular, rolls into practice wearing a hat turned backward. He sports a tattoo on his arm — a cross with tribal wings bearing the name of his mother, who died in April from emphysema. Recovering from tailbone surgery caused by infected pressure sores (a constant hazard to the wheelchair bound), he was unable to attend her funeral.

Daurelio never married and is amicably separated from Jenna's mother, who lives in Lakewood. Jenna spends weekdays with her mother and weekends with Dad. She is the center of his world: his daughter, companion, and inspirational coach. Daurelio can be hard on himself, overly critical of missed shots.

Daurelio met his fate on a motocross bike, the same kind that felled teammate Drew Lacko. He was 30 at the time, attending a picnic on Memorial Day 2001 at his parents' house in Amherst. He and his father got into an argument about riding: Dad was resistant, but bikes were Daurelio's passion. He hopped on, but soon after the bike ran out of gas. When a two-stroke motor sucks in too much air, it over-revs and then stalls. He was in mid-air when his bike over-revved. The moment he began the jump, he knew.

After missing last season, Daurelio is eager to return. Pushing himself at practice, he feels a sudden pain knife through his shoulder. He grimaces and stops. Everyone circles up, as Daurelio puts words to his agony.

"Duct tape it," Jenna says in response. "Like Mom always says: Duct tape works with everything."

Daurelio attempts a smile, taps his hand a couple times on a bench, as if knocking on wood. Then he shifts into his regular chair, done for the day. The others take his cue and call it quits.

With an eye toward the future, the Wheelchair Cavaliers schedule their first exhibition game at an elementary school in Wooster, near the homes of a number of their junior players.

They were slated to compete against the Washington, D.C. junior wheelchair team. But the regular D.C. team — the D.C. Air Capital — has shown up instead, fresh from competition in Urbana against the storied University of Illinois squad.

D.C. is no better than average, but they'll be a handful on this day: Waller and Smutak can't make it. But Lemmer, Momosor, Whetstone, and Kratky are there. Lacko, a star from last year's team who is recovering from hip-replacement surgery, makes the trip from Elyria, but will only run the shot clock.

Duct tape didn't work for Daurelio: He tore a biceps muscle and will be out for a couple of weeks. He's due back in time for the season opener at Pittsburgh on November 20. He is glad it's just a minor setback, but the prospect of waiting grates on him.

And the Cavs could have used Daurelio's defense at Wooster. D.C. racked up an early lead, and the Cavs were stone-cold from the field. Final score: Washington 56, Cleveland 16. The championship form is a no-show.

"It's not easy," Fox says to the exhausted players afterward, clutching a whiteboard littered with X's and O's that didn't work. "There were flashes of things that finally started coming together. That's why I'm videoing all this — so we can watch it. It's going to be ugly. I'm going to tell you that right now, and you're going to get pointed out a lot. But that's OK. You've got to learn from it."

Things get better at the next exhibition: a Monday-nighter at Hiram College, against able-bodied players from the school's men's and women's teams. The game is part of Hiram's disability-awareness week. There's a crowd of about 60: the usual — parents, friends, and coaches.

Truth be told, the Cavs are not particularly intimidated by able-bodied players, knowing as they do how hard it is to score points and move quickly from a chair.

The Cavs take an early four-point lead. A Hiram player's pass sails miserably out of bounds. Whetstone keeps up the pace with a swish from eight feet out. Kratky connects from close range, and his parents clap. Lemmer scoops up a loose ball, dribbles in, and lays it up.

The buzzer signals the end of a laugher: Cavs 26, Hiram 6. The two teams had agreed beforehand to play only one half — a move that has charitably cut the Terriers' embarrassment in half.

On Saturday, the team is back in Twinsburg. Waller gathers everyone around him and asks what they learned in Wooster.

Kratky speaks first, eager as always. He remembers the D.C. players hustling on fast breaks, cutting in front of him. He grew angry because he couldn't shake the speedy guy who guarded him throughout the game.

Waller listens, then says slowly, "You want to avoid that circumstance in the future. What would you think you have to do to help yourself? What would help your quickness? Strength? Stamina? Both of those things."

He turns to Lemmer. "Sparky, what did you learn?"

Lemmer recounts his problems with ball-handling. Waller makes them all laugh again, then returns to what Sparky might do to improve.

And so it goes: a little more introspective Q&A, some practice guarding one another, more foul shooting, more scrimmaging, and more gimp jokes.

With the November 20 opener drawing near, Waller is enough of a realist to recognize that the deck is stacked against them finding glory again.

"Although we are unlikely to repeat our championship run, we have already won," he writes in an e-mail. "At Wooster many of our new juniors had to play a team from Washington. Though they weren't juniors, it was [our] first official competition. To me, that is better than a championship."

Rick Perloff is a professor and director of the School of Communication at Cleveland State University. His last article for Scene was on the 40th anniversary of the May 4 Kent State University shootings.

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