River Cities

Chairmen of the boards

BY MICHAEL SHARP AND CLAYTON GUTZMORE

Mario Moran, 27, races with the ball across the court during a practice game with his basketball team, the Miami Heat Wheels. The team, which is a non-profit wheelchair basketball program, is part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and practices about two times per week. Their tournament runs from September through March.
Mario Moran, 27, races with the ball across the court during a practice game with his basketball team, the Miami Heat Wheels. The team, which is a non-profit wheelchair basketball program, is part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and practices about two times per week. Their tournament runs from September through March. Miami Herald Staff

This story was originally posted on April, 10 2014

 

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. The bullet damaged his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Before Moran lost the ability to walk, he was an athlete, playing on his high school baseball team and in pickup basketball games around the neighborhoods of Union City, N.J. After he moved 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 learned 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 a major reason the Heat Wheels were a topranked 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. the Leisure Access Foundation and Miami Heat.

Parnes Cartwright, who is in his fourth year as the team's 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 wheelchairs that 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 earned them a trip to the national championship tournament in Louisville, Ky.

In the tournament, which had a double-elimination format, the Heat Wheels went 3-2, but were eliminated Saturday by the Fayetteville Flyers from North Carolina 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 among 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 participate in the Wings for Life World Run, a worldwide event in which thousands of runners will set off simultaneously from more than 30 locations around the world, including the BB&T Center in Sunrise. Registration 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 the world run 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."

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