WHEELS ON FIRE: WheelCats take the court in West Point

An exhibition series between the Mississippi WheelCats and various organizations from the area was held at West Point High School Saturday (Photo by Ryan Phillips, DTL)

West Point High senior quarterback Jake Chambless has taken his fair share of hard hits, but probably none like the blow delivered when he crashed into nine-year-old Phillip Lindsey.

The two collided wheelchairs with a loud, metallic rattle near the free-throw line in the West Point High gymnasium on Saturday afternoon during an exhibition series between the Mississippi WheelCats and various organizations from the area. Other participants included the West Point High School basketball team, school faculty, West Point Police and Fire, and staff from North Mississippi Medical Center - West Point.

“Nobody is big enough, he loves it,” Lindsay Lindsey, Phillip’s mother, says as she watched her son on the court. “He loves the competition and loves to be able to get out there and barrel through.”

Phillip is one of only five people in the state with Caudal Regression Syndrome and he can walk with the use of crutches. However, he moves much faster on the court with his wheels.

The WheelCats compete in the National Wheechair Basketball League (NWBL) and is a part of the Mississippi Youth Wheelchair League, a 501(c)(3) non-profit and registered charity. The goal of the organization is to provide adaptive sports for people with lower limb disability.

Participation comes at no cost to the athletes or their families.

Mississippi Youth Wheelchair League Chief Financial Officer Mark Roth said their league is the only one in the state sanctioned by the national organization.

“Our whole goal for doing events like this is for public awareness,” Roth said. “We just want everybody to know the Mississippi Youth Wheelchair League exists and that the Mississippi WheelCats basketball team are here. You don’t have to be just a wheelchair user, as long as you have a lower limb disability, you qualify to play wheelchair basketball. Our goal is to grow the nonprofit to include other sports like softball, tennis, because not everybody likes basketball.”

On the wheelchair basketball circuit, most states will only have one team. If the athletes want to get the work in on the court in a non-practice setting, their most common competition comes in the form of exhibition games or series, like the one hosted at WPHS on Saturday.

Roth said the team had nine athletes last year and registration is open for those 18 and under

“We would love to know about them to get them on our team,” he said.. “They have also expanded to an adult team to provide the service for the youth who have aged out.”

Currently, 11 universities offer athletic scholarships for wheelchair basketball, and earlier this year, the Mississippi WheelCats saw Rontes Williams, a Pearl High School product, accept a scholarship to Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota.

While no colleges in Mississippi are members of the NWBA, both the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Auburn University sanction teams.

Nineteen-year-old Christian Cudo, of Clinton, a public speaker who joined the WheelCats in 2014 said the experience for his has been “life-changing”

“So many people don’t know it’s out there,” Cudo commented about the concept. “Like me, I never even imagined playing wheelchair basketball but you just have to get in contact with people. But luckily before I joined the team, they practiced at a gym I go to so it was incredible. I tell people all the time, you just have to get out there and find what you want to do.”

Cudo was on the floor for the WheelCats’ 21-4 victory over the West Point Fire Department and said if some of the guys who played for the first time stuck with it, they might turn out to be pretty good.

“As far as being in a wheelchair, you just have to keep your head up,” he said. “Anyone can join, if you have an amputee anyone can join, even if you don’t do it competitively I recommend getting on a rec team.”

Allen Flynt with the West Point Fire Department said there was some apprehension at first before his guys took to the wheelchairs, but following their defeat, the team was all smiles and stuck around to cheer from the sidelines during the next game.

“Our biggest guy, they brought his wheels off the ground one time,” Flynt laughed. “They had a ton of fun doing it and we did get beat pretty bad. We were proud to score four.”

When asked what the most overlooked part of the game can be in terms of difficulty for first timers, Cudo said dribbling and pushing the chair at the same time.

“In regular basketball, you can run with both your legs and dribble with both your hands,” Cudo said. “One of the hardest things in my opinion is pushing and trying to dribble at the same time. That’s the hardest thing I feel like anyone playing, that’s what they will experience.”

Phillip has been a WheelCat for about a year, according to his mother, who said they learned rules along the way, had some fun and figured some things out.

“It is amazing, to be able to go to different places and have people that are also in wheelchairs and kids that are also his age that do the same things he does, that get around the same way he does and think the way that he does, it’s amazing and inspiring and for him it’s encouraging,” Lindsey said.

She then said they had tried baseball for Phillip in the past, but that he got as far as he could go with it and found basketball about two years when they attended an exhibition in Fulton.

The past year saw many firsts for the young athlete, who played in his first game, made his first goal, was given the SEC Hustle Award for the organization’s tournament and was Rookie of the Year for the WheelCats.

As Lindsey watched her son Phillip wheel around the court, crash into grown men twice his size and take confident shots from the floor, she beamed with pride and praise for the concept.

“We’ve had people talk to us all the time about how it’s amazing to watch Phillip, but it’s all God,” the proud mother said. “We let him do whatever he can do physically and mentally and everything else he does is God. We don’t try to tell him ‘no’ a whole lot when he is trying to do something.”