River Cities

Wheelchair basketball league provides inspiration, second chances for many

Mitchell Braithwaite, 23, center, fights to keep the basketball from Jackson David, 33, right, during a team practice. Braithwaite has been part of Miami Heat Wheels, a nonprofit wheelchair basketball program, for about four months.
Mitchell Braithwaite, 23, center, fights to keep the basketball from Jackson David, 33, right, during a team practice. Braithwaite has been part of Miami Heat Wheels, a nonprofit wheelchair basketball program, for about four months. Miami Herald Staff

Parnes Cartwright’s coaching style isn’t loud or in-your-face. Rather, he sits back, poised but vigilant, as his players move up and down the court. Every now and then, he’ll stop practice and interject.

“I tend to be fairly quiet, but I want an up-tempo game, which is something that [the players] aren’t used to,” said Cartwright, 56, on the sideline. He’s the fifth-year coach of the Miami Heat Wheels, a nonprofit wheelchair basketball program and member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA). “I want them to be even faster and in shape.”

With the Heat Wheels’ Invitational Wheelchair Basketball Tournament approaching on Saturday, Cartwright says they have a lot of work to do and, moreover, something to prove. The team is ranked first in the Florida Conference and eighth in the NWBA’s Division III, but they’re still living with last year’s double-digit loss to the Fayetteville Flyers during the NWBA’s National Championships in Kentucky.

The Heat Wheels are facing another barrier: a community that’s still growing to understand, respect and support wheelchair basketball.

“One of the issues with wheelchair basketball is that [people] don’t know how exciting the game can be,” Cartwright said. “If we’re going to keep that excitement, we want our athletes to be athletes.”

The Heat Wheels, in its 16th season, is funded by Miami-Dade Parks and Disabilities Services, the Leisure Access Foundation and the Miami Heat — but Cartwright says it isn’t enough. The Heat Wheels program was originally conceived as a recreational league, and over the years has grown to become an outlet where men and women can play at a high level.

The endeavors of the team –– both on and off the court –– have also become the subject of an independent documentary called The Rebound, a film that Shaina Koren and Mike Esposito have spent the last two years shooting and producing. The duo has already raised over $17,000 through Indiegogo, an international crowd-funding site. The film aims to raise awareness on the significance and role wheelchair basketball plays in the lives of men and women in wheelchairs.

“The project really started with the fact that we knew nothing about adaptive sport,” said Esposito, 28. “The support wasn’t there, and we also knew the team in Miami wasn’t the only program was facing challenges.”

Cartwright sits on the national board for the NWBA and was voted as president to the Florida Conference last year. He says that “as far as county programs are concerned, the Heat Wheels are one of the last paralympic programs available.” Since 2009, many programs across the United States have either lost funding or were terminated altogether. After the market crashed in 2008, Cartwright says the Heat Wheels program lost 97 percent of its funding.

“We have time, but there are programs that are losing time,” Cartwright said. “The North Carolina Tar Wheels — who won the Division III championship last year — they just lost their gym.”

For many of many of the men and women who play competitively, wheelchair basketball is a second chance, and for others it can even be a third.

Mitchell Braithwaite, a 23-year-old rookie for the Heat Wheels, played basketball throughout his years at Transit Tech High School, a vocational school in Brooklyn, New York. Braithwaite, found himself in a lot of trouble in his teenage years. At 14 years old, he was sentenced to two years in jail for an assault charge.

He went on to receive a basketball scholarship to New York University. But on May 4, 2008, Braithwaite was the victim of a retaliatory shooting after an alleged robbery that occurred in his home during birthday party.

“I saw it in his face that he was there to retaliate, so I got up; and the minute I got up, he pointed the gun at me and shot me in the chest,” he said.

He was paralyzed instantly and later fell into a coma. “After all that, I lost my chance to go to school.”

Braithwaite would spend the next five years rebuilding his life. He moved from home to home throughout New York, and later to California to rekindle an old relationship. Basketball, at this point, was a ghost of his past. But then a friend invited him to South Florida, and things began to change.

“While I was on vacation here, I got stopped by three different people on three different occasions asking me if I played wheelchair basketball,” Braithwaite said. He was reluctant at first –– he thought it was rough and lacked technique. The Fort Lauderdale Sharks invited him to play in a tournament where his opinion of the sport changed. The team, however, did not have a place for him on their roster.

He was introduced to Cartwright soon after.

“I said, ‘Coach, I want a jersey. The Fort Lauderdale Sharks want me to play for them in a tournament, but they don’t have a jersey for me. Give me a jersey and I’m in here.’”

Braithwaite’s rookie season with the Heat Wheels was tough.

“I sucked,” he said. “I’m one of the slower ones on the court.” Aside from having to buy his teammates dinner (a rookie rite of passage), Braithwaite says he had to relearn the game of basketball — initially without a proper wheelchair.

His teammates helped him throughout the transition.

“The chemistry we have is like a brotherhood and a partnership,” Braithwaite said.

Cartwright admits that he was a little intimidated by wheelchair basketball. There’s a learning curve to it, he said, especially for someone who isn’t used to seeing men in wheelchairs crash onto the floor and pick themselves back up.

But he’s drastically changed his coaching style since 2010. The players on the Heat Wheels are now the fastest in the their conference, and he pushes them to be faster with conditioning drills like sprints up and down parking garages.

“One of the things [the Heat Wheels] do is inspire people,” Cartwright said. “People come to a practice and see them engaged. They don’t think about someone who is weak, but a competitor.”

If you Go

What: Miami Heat Wheels Invitational Wheelchair Basketball Tournament.

Where: Miami Springs Recreation Center, 1401 Westward Dr. , Miami Springs.

When: Saturday, Jan. 17 and Sunday, Jan. 18. Tournament play will begin at 9 a.m. each day.

Cost: Free.