It’s only natural that Benny Guerin has been drawn to basketball.
His hometown of Cuba City is a juggernaut in state high school hoops. The girls team won a record 11th state title earlier this month while the boys have three state crowns in eight appearances.
Benny’s three older brothers played at different levels through the years and when the family driveway isn’t covered with snow, the sound of a bouncing ball and the swish of a net is daily ritual. Benny, 14, can shoot, dribble, and play stiff defense as well as any of his classmates in the southwestern Wisconsin “City of Presidents.”
His black and red Air Jordans, however, never touch the court.
Benny was born with Spina Bifida, a spinal condition that has left him unable to walk. His competitive spirit is fully functional.
The eighth-grade athlete is in his seventh season as a member of the Mad City Badgers, a wheelchair basketball team that travels the country to play other youth wheelchair squads.
This weekend, they played in a 32-team tournament in Kansas City, Missouri. In April, he and his teammates will be off to Kentucky for the national tournament.
“I needed a sport to stay fit,” Benny said. “It’s really competitive. I’m a really competitive person, and I really like it.”
The opportunities for wheelchair basketball in southern Wisconsin are few despite being home to one of the most successful collegiate programs in the country. The UW-Whitewater men’s team this month won its fifth national title in seven years and finished the season at 32-4. It marked the second straight National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball title for the Warhawks and the team’s 12th overall.
For athletes in high school and middle school, the options appear to be just the Madison-based Mad City Badgers and the Milwaukee Heat. The push is on for more players to join Mad City, which has about eight players for most games. To qualify, athletes don’t have to be in a wheelchair. Players that can walk but have physical limitations can play, but come game time they are required to use a chair.
“Anybody that can’t play able-bodied basketball could qualify,” said head coach Melissa Ciarlette. “I see what this gave me as a kid, and I think all kids should have that opportunity whether they have a disability or not.”
The cost for a specialized chair can be between $2,500 and $3,000. Gas, hotel and meals for road trips adds another $2,500 to each player’s tab each season that runs from September through April. The team is a non-profit organization and fundraisers and grants are used to cover some expenses.
Practice is also a logistical challenge. They’re held each Tuesday in the Blackhawk Church gymnasium on Madison’s Southwest Side and on Saturdays at West High School.
Players, which consist of boys and girls, come from Deerfield, Barneveld, Verona, Madison, and even as far away as Tomah.
Ciarlette, 31, spends her days as a preschool teacher in Fitchburg but has been involved with the Mad City Badgers since eighth grade.
The Verona native played five years with the team and has been its coach since 2007. She instructs from a wheelchair after heart surgery when she was six weeks old left her paralyzed from the waist down.
She runs a practice as any coach would. At a recent practice, her players warmed up with five sets of wind sprints across the full length of the gym. That was followed by a round of “suicides,” where players start at one end of the gym and sprint back and forth to different lines on the floor. Like in most sports, a set of parents watched on the side.
“We were really looking for the exercise. We came once (to a practice), and he was hooked,” said Benny’s mother, Mary Guerin, a couple of orange sports drink bottles at her feet. “It’s giving him so much core strength.”
Ciarlette later tutored her team on offensive plays and defensive sets as chairs banged into one another under the 10-foot basket. Players are also drilled on how to right their chair and resume play if they happen to tip over.
“They grow tremendously every year,” Ciarlette said of her players. “They put in a lot of effort.”
Games consist of two 20-minute halves. A 35-second shot clock is used just like a college game. There is no double dribble but players can be called for traveling if they touch the wheel of their chair more than twice and don’t dribble. Upper body strength is crucial, especially on a free throw since players are unable to get push from their legs.
Just like in any sport, size can be a factor.
“When you’re short, trying to block the big guys is hard,” said Brenden Ojibway, 16, a sophomore from Barneveld, who played last season for a team in Rockford. “I just reach as high as I can.”
The team consists of all sizes and a wide range of ages. Raia Ottenheimer, 12, is a sixth-grade student at Hamilton Middle School in Madison. She was born with a left leg that is significantly shorter than her right leg and uses a prosthetic leg to get around. When she plays basketball, the $6,000 carbon-fiber limb is removed.
“She gets a ton more exercise than she would otherwise,” said her father Afan Ottenheimer. “She has a huge grin on her face when she’s playing.”
Raia is 4-foot-9 and weighs 75 pounds. Another teammate, Andrew Cassiday, 8, is just over 4-0, weighs about 40 pounds and doesn’t shoot because he doesn’t have the strength yet to get the ball to the basket. Instead, on offense he focuses on blocking defensive players with his chair and playing defense at the other end of the court.
Then there’s Kirk Gjermo. He’s 18 years old, stands 6-3, weighs in at more than 215 pounds and has a beard. He played football for Deerfield High School for four years but has a torn ACL that doesn’t allow him to play able-bodied basketball.
“Cardio-wise, I think it’s harder,” said Gjermo, who played defensive end and offensive tackle in football and is a center on the Mad City Badgers. “You have to have pretty good balance because shooting, layups ... everything’s a lot different than regular basketball but most of the mechanics are still the same.”
For Benny, the chance to play wheelchair basketball has also drawn his twin sister, Lizzy, to the game. She has flat feet and pronated ankles and knees and was encouraged to try. She medically qualify last year. Now she’s on a team with her brother for the first time in her life.
“You just want to give them as normal a life as possible,” said their mother, Mary Guerin. “To be part of a team and have friends and learn everything that goes along with that is really important.”