Wheelchair basketball group meets Tuesday at Lampman Lane Community Centre in Barrie
Before heading home after a night of wheelchair basketball, participants hold hands in a circle while encouraging each other. The wheelchair basketball program is hosted by All Sports All People and takes place Tuesday at Lampman Lane Community Centre in Barrie. MARK WANZEL/PHOTO
Bradley Bowden dribbles the ball up the court with determination.
The seasoned basketball player is someone former coach Jeff Penner considers “a good shooter” with “exceptional speed.”
Bowden loves the sport of basketball: the fundamentals, the teamwork, the level of competition and even the Canadian origins.
The only difference with the kind of basketball Bowden is used to and the kind you watch on television is that he plays his in a wheelchair.
“My spinal cord hasn’t developed properly,” said Bowden, explaining for likely the hundredth time his birth defect of spinal bifida.
Had he never picked up a basketball, Bowden’s life would have likely turned out a lot different.
The 33-year old played on Canada’s wheelchair basketball team from 2003 until 2008 and he continues to play on Canada’s sledge hockey team, which he has been a part of since 1999.
“I was a very active kid, but also a very lazy kid,” said Bowden, reminiscing about his childhood which was largely filled with watching television and playing Nintendo.
When he was eight years old, his grandparents, Jerry and Coleen, learned about a wheelchair basketball program in the community and encouraged him to participate.
Bowden understood his grandparents’ intention, but he was still hesitant.
“I basically didn’t want to be put in that category (disabled),” he said. “I grew up in a small town, all of my friends were able-bodied. I was never treated differently. Little name callings here and there, but I was treated like everyone else.
“I never really wanted to be in the wheelchair,” Bowden added. “And she (his grandmother) was trying to put me back in a wheelchair and that didn’t sound like fun.”
After convincing him to give the sport a try one weekend, his enthusiasm for wheelchair basketball quickly changed.
“When I tried it, I liked it. I loved that it was something to do on the weekend with friends and it was a challenge,” Bowden said.
“Like, I was so bad at it, but I could look around and see other guys that were pretty good, and think I could be better than that guy,” the Paralympian said emphatically.
Bowden’s competitive edge drove him to play in his first tournament, where he discovered new success.
“I won rookie of the year, and with rookie of the year I won a free basketball wheelchair,” Bowden said with excitement, like it had just happened yesterday. “From that day on, I never looked back.”
Eventually, Bowden was introduced to coach Jeff Penner’s basketball program in Kitchener. Having played on the national wheelchair basketball team himself for 10 years, Penner knew what it took to progress and Bowden thrived playing under him.
In the team’s first four years, they won three junior national titles and came fourth at a American tournament.
To this day, Penner praises Bowden for how relentlessly he plays the game.
“You know what you can’t teach a kid, you can’t teach them to go chase a ball that’s going out of bounds,” Penner said with a chuckle.
As Bowden saw and continues to see much of the world playing on a national Paralympic team, he sees it through a considerably different lens than he did when he was a boy.
“As soon as I started playing, I stopped seeing disability. I just saw players in chairs, I just thought about the game, my friends were in chairs, able-bodied, and struggling like me,” Bowden said. “All of the sudden, I didn’t think this is a charity sport any more or anything like that, it was like ‘this is for everyone’.”
Wheelchair basketball helped Bowden brake the barrier of being handicapped and it made him realize who he is as a person.
“When he started out, I think he was just starting to figure out that he’s not able-bodied,” said Penner.
Once he got on the hardwood with other wheelchair basketball players, his perspective forever changed.
Three years into the role of program development facilitator for All Sport All People, Bowden remains passionate about wheelchair basketball, but rather than playing, he seeks to empower others through the sport that’s given him so much.
Penner used to work as a wheelchair salesman, and what excited him about his job was how customers reacted once in the new chairs.
“When you put someone in a sport wheelchair, the face just lights up,” he said with a grin. “You’re giving them mobility that they’ve never had before.”
That’s the kind of mobility that Bowden believes is possible for anyone to quench playing wheelchair basketball: able-bodied or disabled.
“I think it’d be great for the community,” Bowden said, adding he hopes more people come to his wheelchair basketball program. “Not everyone needs to go to a protest to change their community. You can come to a program like this. It’s good for everyone to come out and make people happy.”
Wheelchair basketball meets Tuesdays from 5:15 p.m. until 6:15 p.m. at Lampman Lane Community Centre in Barrie, and runs until March 31.