Learning to Play from a Wheelchair, One Shot at a Time
By Albert Valdez
Photography By David Lopez
A.J. Coldiron lined up for a layup at a recent basketball practice. He put up a shot. The ball clanked off the rim. Head down and shoulders slumped, Coldiron rolled back to the layup line.
The game once came with ease. But that was before the wheelchair.
On Nov. 5, 2015, Coldiron, 18, was driving on a rain-slickened U.S. Highway 290 to Austin from College Station when he lost control of his 2010 Toyota Prius and hydroplaned into an oncoming tractor-trailer. Coldiron was paralyzed from the waist down.
Coldiron was in a state of denial. He thought to himself, “I am going to get better in a few months. I’ll be at school next semester. This is just a little bump in the road.”
Instead, he was told by doctors that he would likely never walk again.
After five months of rehab at Seton Brain and Spine Rehab Center, Coldiron joined the Austin Rec’cers, a wheelchair basketball team. His therapists suggested he give it a try.
Once a two-sport athlete at Anderson High School in Austin, Coldiron was accustomed to using his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame to post up opposing players on the basketball court and to fight off offensive lineman as a defensive end in football. But Coldiron’s height is no longer the factor it once was.
Now, he uses upper-body strength, instead of his legs, to put up shots.
“It takes a lot of (abdominal) strength. It’s not easy to shoot the basketball while controlling the movement of your wheelchair at the same time,” Coldiron said.
Coldiron struggled to shoot as soon he started playing in a wheelchair. Air balls were common, and layups didn’t come as easily as they once did for him.
“It’s a very big struggle to find my balance while also shooting a bank shot with someone in my face,” Coldiron said.
Larry Stoddard, a seven-year veteran of the Rec’cers, said he knows the frustration that comes from trying to find your way on the court.
“Staying patient is the key. It’s your due diligence,” Stoddard said, describing the mindset needed for the transition.
Stoddard, 52, was paralyzed from the neck down in June 2008 from a blood clot. Now he and Coldiron are a part of the D3 Rec’cers team. As part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), the Rec’cers have two teams, and the D3 team is for newer players with an emphasis on recreation. The other team, known as D1, accommodates experienced players at high-level competition.
Founded in 1948, the NWBA has grown to over 200 teams nationwide.
Shooting the ball hasn’t been the only struggle for Coldiron. Even tasks as simple as moving around the court during a scrimmage have become that much harder. Coldiron was accustomed to running around defenders. In a wheelchair, he learned it takes navigation of a different kind.
“Now it’s harder to move across the court on defense since everyone’s chairs act as obstacles,” Coldiron said.
He was joined at mid-court at the recent practice by Fred Esman, president of the Rec’cers and a member of the D1 team. Esman, 39, lost both of his legs in a motorcycle accident and has been with the Rec’cers for nearly 10 years. He knows all too well about the transition and how long it can take to get comfortable in your wheelchair.
“It took me six years to get where I am today,” Esman said, putting on his prosthetic legs after practice at Doris Miller Recreation Center. “It’s constant tweaking.”
Before joining the Rec’cers, Coldiron thought wheelchair sports wouldn’t be as fun. He had the impression that wheelchair sports were looked down on because they wouldn’t be as competitive as able-bodied sports. Coldiron has learned how much wheelchair sports mean to him and now knows just how tough they can be to transition into.
“It’s a way for me to deal with the frustration of my injury,” Coldiron said. “It’s frustrating with people who don’t understand.”