On May 27, 2005, Mario Moran’s life changed forever.
During an altercation that began because of the jewelry he was wearing, Moran was shot in the chest and the bullet damaged his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Before Moran lost his ability to walk, he was an active athlete, playing on his high school baseball team and in pickup basketball games around the neighborhoods of Union City, N.J. After moving to Hialeah in 2006 to get away from the cold weather and be closer to his father, it took him about five years to find a way to continue playing the sport he loves.
“I was a competitor and played sports at a very high level,” said Moran, 27. “After my accident, I had that taken away from me. I thought that was it, and the competitor in me was gone until I heard about wheelchair basketball.”
About three years ago, Moran heard about the Miami Heat Wheels — a nonprofit basketball program and member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. He decided to take the opportunity to get back what was taken from him.
Moran is one of the primary reasons the Heat Wheels were a top-ranked team and competed for a national championship this season, but before he became a star for the team, he had to get through the first few practices.
“First of all, I was out of shape,” he said. “I was a beginner and couldn’t even reach the ball for a layup.”
The soreness Moran felt after his first practice was a type he had never dealt with before.
“I didn't even know my hands had these types of muscles,” he said. “Even your fingers hurt. My hands and forearms got sore, but it was good pain.”
The Heat Wheels basketball team is in its 15th season and is funded by Miami-Dade Parks and Disabilities Services, as well as the Leisure Access Foundation. The team encourages locals with disabilities to the lower extremities, who are interested in joining, to email head coach Parnes Cartwright.
Cartwright, who is in his fourth year as the coach, said that putting the player first is the most important part of the program.
“The focus should always be on our athletes,” said Cartwright, 56. “Our program is something that’s always turning over. After playing with us, they may be recognized as athletes that others want to play on their traveling team, play internationally, or they may go off to college. That’s the beauty of our program.”
Cartwright also talked about the design of the chairs the 14 players on his roster are provided with to ensure the quality of competition, as well as their safety.
“We use an aluminum or titanium frame,” he said. “Either one wheel or two wheels in the back have an anti-tip, so that you can prevent tipping over when going full-speed down the court.”
The Heat Wheels took this season on full speed and finished 23-5, which was good enough to make them the ninth-ranked team in the nation and earn them a trip to the national championship tournament in Louisville, Ky.
In the tournament, which has a double-elimination format, the Heat Wheels went 3-2, but were eliminated by the Fayetteville Flyers on Saturday after suffering their only double-digit loss of the season, 71-61.
When point guard Willy Rodriguez, 29, reflected on the season, he talked about the brotherhood built between the teammates.
“Just being with them, being able to participate with them and traveling with them is what it’s about,” said Rodriguez, who suffered his spinal cord injury in a 2008 car accident. “You know, you’re limited in the things you can do, and it’s good to be active.”
Although the season is over, the Heat Wheels have another opportunity to make their presence felt.
On May 4, the team will be participating in the Wings for Life World Run, a worldwide event in which thousands of runners will set off simultaneously from more than 30 different locations around the world including the BB&T Center in Sunrise. Registration to enter the run ends April 20, and all of the proceeds will be used to fund research into curing spinal cord injuries.
For players like Moran, being a part of the Heat Wheels and participating in events like these is all it takes to keep him motivated.
“It’s a safe haven for me,” he said. “It represents life. This sport really saved my life. This is what I live for, why I’m here right now, and all I think about is basketball.”