River Cities

Miami Springs Community Center hosts Third Annual Miami Heat Wheels Basketball Tournament

The Miami Springs Community Center served as a host venue for a bunch of players in Heat jerseys last weekend but, no, it’s not what you’re thinking. There was no D-Wade, Chris Bosh or Mario Chalmers out on the court.

What we had here was perhaps something nearly as entertaining and extremely inspirational as the Community Center, for the third year in a row, served as the host site for the Miami Heat Wheels Invitational Basketball Tournament.

The wheels we speak of are wheelchairs, as every member of teams coming from as far north as Philadelphia and as far west as Houston are a part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Yes, folks, this is an actual league with a tie-in to the NBA with playoffs every April and league champions decided.

Whether these wheelchair-bound players had both, one or no legs, it didn’t matter. They put on a display of basketball that left everyone who attended marveling at their skill levels.

Who won this weekend? Who cares.

They all won as the tournament showed off not only NWBA teams (Philadelphia Magee 76ers, TIRR Houston Hot Wheels and the Heat Wheels’ big rival, Tampa Bay Strong Dogs), but many of the talented Division II teams such as the Sunrise Suns and Fort Lauderdale Sharks from Broward County.

These players obviously were dealt some kind of lousy hand in life, whatever the circumstances were that landed them in a wheelchair, but they haven’t let their disability slow them down. Not one bit.

“We’re so grateful and appreciative to the City of Miami Springs, the community and all of the local businesses for once again reaching out to allow us to host this event,” said Miami Heat Wheels head coach and Executive Director Parnes Cartwright, now in his fifth year coaching the team. “It shows that they embrace everyone in society and it was obvious that they really wanted to be a part of this event.”

The event itself ran Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and featured a total of eight teams playing a total of 16 games on both Court 1 and Court 2.

If comparing the first two years to this year can be used as a measuring stick, Cartwright and the Heat Wheels have really built some momentum. Not only were last year’s sponsors back on board again in the way of not only the City of Miami Springs, the local Clarion Inn & Suites, Miami-Dade County, Milam’s Market and McDonald’s, but Wheelchair Fitness Solutions and Southlake Medical Supplies jumped on board as well.

And while we already said, “who cares” when it came to winning the tournament, don’t tell that to the Heat players, who sure cared as Cartwright watched his Heat team “run the table,” winning all five games. Even though there were no trophies given out on Sunday afternoon, it was clear which team had outperformed everyone else.

Miami began the competition on Saturday morning edging the TIRR (Technical Institute of Rehabilitation and Research) Hot Wheels, ranked No. 7 in the nation, 52-47. They then edged the Sunrise Suns 30-28 before topping the Fort Lauderdale Sharks 50-40 to finish the day 3-0. Sunday brought a 54-45 win over the Magee 76ers, which set the stage for one final game against their big rival, Tampa Bay. Thanks to some great play from Carlos Martinez, Dirrick Hughes and Willie Rodriguez, Miami came out on top 67-52.

The Heat Wheels moved their record to 20-4 with the five wins and are currently ranked No. 4 in the league with 24 teams receiving an invite to the national tournament in Louisville in early April. Last year Miami did make the tournament in Louisville and finished eighth. Cartwright expects another call soon with another invitation awaiting his team.

“It’s something I really enjoy and get so much fulfillment out of,” said Cartwright. “We take for granted when we can stand up under a basket and shoot a basketball or move around with two healthy legs and then you watch what these people can do. It just makes you shake your head in amazement.”

Cartwright was a player himself coming out of the Pelham Fritz Hoops League on Long Island, New York, over a decade ago before moving down to South Florida. One day a few years back, his wife, Elizabeth Cox, who works with Lucy Binhack, who runs the Miami-Dade County Disabilities Services, approached him.

To watch these players fly up and down the court left one amazed. The rules are not a lot different than a regulation NCAA college basketball game. There are two 20-minute halves and a shot clock that is actually 5 seconds less (30) than the 35 seconds college players have.

When players take the ball, they are allowed to hit the wheels up to two times with their hands before having to put the ball on the ground or traveling is called.

“As a former player, being around basketball is part of my DNA and I think it is with these players as well,” said Cartwright, who is long-time friends with Pelican Playhouse director Ralph Wakefield, which is where the Miami Heat Wheels/Miami Springs connection came in. “The way I see it, it’s not about their disability so much is it’s about their ability. They are some of the hardest-working athletes you will ever see.”

And yet, despite his positive outlook, Cartwright still feels like there is a glass ceiling surrounding his team and the league in terms of respect and recognition.

“I think people sometimes underestimate the actual entertainment value of this,” said Cartwright. “I think these players want to be recognized as a sports team and not some type of community service. The idea is to ultimately get people to think about someone in a wheelchair as an athlete, not somebody that is handicapped.”

If you would like to check out the team sometime, that’s not a problem. They use the Miami Springs Community Center basketball court every Saturday afternoon (2 to 4 p.m.) for a once-a-week practice. Anyone wishing to help out may visit their Facebook page at Facebook.com/HeatWheels or contact Carwright at 917-545-5949, or by email at heatwheels@gmail.com.