The 338th Army Band is playing triumphantly as we walk into the Crisler Center. We buy our requisite pretzels and sodas, notice that the wheelchair seating is completely full, then walk all the way down to the floor to find seats.
My eight-year-old son, Little Brother, is not sure for whom he should cheer. His grandfather was in the Navy, his great-grandfather was in the Air Force, and his other great-grandfather was in the cavalry (really), but we cannot think of anyone in our family who was in the Army. So he decides to cheer for Navy, “my grandfather’s team.”
The annual U-M Army/Navy Wheelchair Basketball Game is an event to celebrate disability awareness, the highlight of Investing in Ability Week, and part of U-M’s Veterans Week. It is also quite the basketball game.
The first thing Little Brother notices is that these are not normal wheelchairs. These are badass wheelchairs. Big slanted wheels, low to the ground, sturdy, spare–these wheelchairs are fast and maneuverable. They are also surprisingly graceful, spinning and turning easily.
The second thing Little Brother notices is that both referees’ legs are strapped into their wheelchairs. So this is not just a game for them. This is real.
We find that it is easy to tell who uses a wheelchair every day and who is just using one for today’s game. Some of the players are disabled vets, and others are U-M students who are experiencing what it is like to be in a wheelchair. The players who normally use wheelchairs are much faster, more nimble, more aggressive.
The action is fast and fluid, moving back and forth across the court. Teamwork is central, as chairs are more easily pinned and blocked than players on foot. When players crash their wheelchairs into one another, the sound of clanging metal ricochets through the air. When players fall, the audience holds its breath. The first two players to fall clamber back up with no problem, but the third falls at an odd angle, and it takes three people to lift him back upright again. We all applaud, but I can’t help but reflect on the fragility of our bodies, the price these veterans have paid for their service, and the great courage and spirit of these individuals.
Sobering and inspiring.
There are also performances by the U-M Dance Team, the U-M Tri-Service Color Guard, the U-M Men’s Glee Club, and the 338th Army Band, as well as a silent auction and a speech by a U-M regent. Everyone sings happy birthday to one player’s young son. We are all family here.
In the end, the final score was Navy 32, Army 27. This year’s game is November 10.