By Jerome Tharaud
On any Tuesday night from December through March, the Havre Middle School gymnasium is filled with dribbling, passing and shooting. It's not your typical pickup game, though, because the gym is also filled with wheels.
Participants in the Havre Parks and Recreation Department's wheelchair basketball program race down the court, arms pumping madly to overtake a loose ball. Whoever comes up with it puts it in his lap and gives two pushes on the wheels of his chair before he has to dribble the ball or pass it to one of his teammates farther down the court. Otherwise it's traveling.
Other simple rules: no standing up out of the chair, and if the chair falls over or if any of the wheels leave the ground, it's a foul.
The metal chairs collide and grind as the players congregate under the basket at the other end of the court. After an easy layup, they're racing back down the court again.
"It's fun," said Erik Golden, 14. "We're out there talking trash to each other. I think it's cool."
None of the Havre players - on this night there were six of them - use a wheelchair off the court, and when the hour is over, they get up and walk home.
Johannas Brown, 24, said he has been playing for about four years. He used to play basketball without a chair.
"I just don't anymore," he said. "It's a little more challenging (when) you don't have your legs."
C.J. Leeds, 15, started playing three years ago. Leeds, a freshman at Havre High School, also intended to play traditional basketball for HHS this season. But he broke his ankle, so now his basketball is played in a chair.
"When I heard about it I thought it was weird, but when I first played it, I thought it was a lot of fun," said Jeremy Couch, 23, who is playing his third season of wheelchair basketball. "It's probably harder to get a position," he said. "You've got to maneuver."
The sport isn't for the tame.
"It's a tough sport," said Karl Verploegen, one of the team's longest-standing players, and C.J. Leeds' father.
In competition, fingers are often smashed between wheels, and only the most calloused hands can go without using gloves or tape, he said.
Two of those hands, rubbed black from tire rubber, belong to Lee Schuster. Verploegen got Schuster started playing about 10 years ago.
"Once you learn how to run one of these things it's a lot of fun," Schuster said.
"Shooting is all arm strength," Verploegen said, adding that good players can make a three-pointer without any problem.
It takes more than physical strength, said Larry Nitz, one of the founding fathers of the Havre team, who no longer plays.
"If you play in a wheelchair you'll find out in a real big hurry that it's a thinking man's game," Nitz said. "You've got to think a lot more and anticipate what's going to happen with your opponent."
Positioning, he said, is everything.
"The main thing is, it takes away height advantage," Brown said.
But not completely.
Stephan Johnson, 15, started to play about two months ago.
"He has long arms," Johnson said, referring to Golden.
"It really helps," Schuster agreed.
Building a team
The sport came to Havre in the mid-1980s. It started with an accident.
In 1983 Nitz was working as a lineman for Montana Power Co. One day he was on a power pole east of Havre when he touched a conductor that was supposed to be grounded. It wasn't. Having just climbed the pole, Nitz didn't have a safety belt on securing him to it, and the electricity knocked him to the ground, 20 to 25 feet below. The fall broke his back.
"I became a paraplegic in an instant," Nitz said.
There were few opportunities for sports activities for people in a wheelchair in Havre. Nitz was still in Great Falls doing rehabilitation when he got the idea to start a wheelchair basketball team here. Great Falls didn't have a team yet, but there were several other teams in the state.
Nitz started making phone calls. With the help of Havre parks and recreation director Dave Wilson and the cooperation of the school district, which allowed the group to use the HMS gym, the team was started.
"I do remember Dave Wilson was very instrumental in getting us going," Nitz said. "He put us under his wing, and from then on it became a bona fide activity."
The team called itself the Wheelchair Sports League, Nitz said, because it was willing to incorporate any other wheelchair sports people wanted to play, like soccer and hockey.
"At that time I think it was extremely important to my self-image to feel like I could participate in something like that. Something physical," Nitz said.
Wheelchair basketball provided that. "I felt that I was on a level playing field with other folks. I could participate as an equal," he said.
There were about six people on the Havre team that first year. It was among the best teams in the state, Nitz said.
"I know we could have gone up against any team in the state and give them a run for their money."
That year they competed in a large annual tournament in Bozeman. The tournament was limited to 64 teams, and for several years there was so much interest that teams had to be turned away.
There used to be many teams around the state, including Billings, Kalispell, Missoula, Bozeman, Ronan and Polson.
"We got into finals - or semifinals at least - the very first year," Nitz recalled.
That was in spite of the fact that Nitz was the only person on the Havre team who was disabled. The best teams were made up of people who used wheelchairs every day, he said.
"We experienced a form of reverse discrimination because typically the teams that end up in finals were disabled," Nitz said. "I think some of the reffing went their way for that reason. ... But over the years we gained a lot of respect and gained some friendships along the way."
When Verploegen started playing about 12 years ago, the turnout at the weekly sessions at Havre Middle School was generally higher than it is today - often 10 or 12 people, he said.
At one point in the mid-1990s there were 20 people signed up, Wilson said, although they didn't all play at the same time.
"Actually the competition is pretty good most of the time. And when we used to go to tournaments, that was really a blast," Verploegen said.
Verploegen's first year playing, the Havre team went to the annual tournament in Bozeman and placed second.
For a few years Havre even hosted its own round-robin tournament, where as many as 10 teams would show up, Wilson said.
Getting the gear
When disabled World War II veterans began playing wheelchair basketball in rehabilitation hospitals, they used heavy chairs that were not made for athletic use, Nitz said.
It wasn't until the 1980s that the running craze that was sweeping the country spilled over into wheelchair sports, he said.
"In the '80s there were a lot of people experimenting. They would take these old clunkers and start cutting it up themselves and try to make it light as they could, maneuverable as they could."
Today's wheelchair athletes - including basketball and tennis players, marathoners, track and field athletes, and more - glide around in elegant, featherweight titanium chairs. They go for between $2,500 and $3,500 each.
"The name of the game is weight, so the lighter they are the better off you are," Nitz said. Titanium chairs today weigh as little as 15 pounds, he said.
If those are the Porsches of the wheelchair basketball world, in Havre they started with Packards - big, old and heavy. The hospital and the old Lutheran Home of the Good Shepherd donated them.
"And that's what we started with," Nitz said. "With a bunch of old clunker wheelchairs with the wheels about to fall off and the spokes broken, and they weighed about 75 pounds."
Then Nitz's youngest son, Jeremiah, needed a welding project for a class in high school. Armed with a welding torch and square steel tubing, he built a wheelchair. Jeremiah got an A. His father got a new wheelchair to play basketball in.
Verploegen, who knew how to weld, was roped into repairing chairs that were broken in the heat of battle. Eventually, repairing chairs turned into assembling them - from an assortment of steel tubing, wheels, axles and bearings.
Today most of the chairs used by the team are homemade. The design Jeremiah used is the same basic one Karl Verploegen uses today, but it has been improved by constant tinkering with the design to make them lighter and more maneuverable, Nitz said.
"The chairs kind of evolved with time," he said. "We learned what worked better and what didn't work as well, and the next chair that you built, then you would try to incorporate those modifications into the new chair to make it work better."
Verploegen said he would be hard-pressed to make a chair in less than two days. He estimated that without wheels - which can be expensive - and tires, a chair might cost about $300 to build.
Nitz estimated that the chairs Verploegen makes weigh about 30 to 35 pounds - heavier than the titanium ones, but a lot cheaper too.
Keeping the wheels turning
By about five years ago, the sport's heyday in Montana had passed, Verploegen said.
There are still occasional pickup tournaments and an annual tournament in Kalispell, but nothing like the gatherings of dozens of teams that brought together athletes from across the state, Nitz said.
Why interest faded is anyone's guess.
"I haven't quite figured that out," Nitz said. It could be that the people who were involved got too old and the sport lacked a new generation to carry it on, he said.
Lack of promotion, Schuster said, could also be partially to blame.
As the state scene cooled, it affected things in Havre as well.
The last tournament the Havre team went to was about three or four years ago.
Now, instead of 10 or more players, somewhere between three and six usually show up at the HMS gym on Tuesday nights.
Verploegen said involvement in Havre fluctuates, and that about every other year there is usually a good turnout - but not the 20 people of a decade ago.
What would it take to get it going again?
"I would guess just somebody to push," Nitz said. "But it has to happen in every community that wants a program. It can't just happen in Havre, or you're only going to be playing Havreites."
"Oh sure, we'd love to have people come," Verploegen said.