Story And Photos By Nick Nahas
“Everybody talks about LeBron being the greatest basketball player in the world, but let him try to play basketball in a wheelchair and see how he does,” said Wayne Bozeman, head coach of the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs wheelchair basketball team. Bozeman became the leader of the start-up team nine years ago after inquiries from some injured veterans at the VA Hospital. Bozeman works as a Recreation Therapist with the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department.
The Strong Dogs compete as part of Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay, a signature program of Hillsborough County Parks & Recreation. The team is comprised of 17 players, some of whom have spina bifida and others who are amputees or have spinal cord injuries. Four of the players are injured veterans. “To me, they are the best basketball players out there, not just our guys, but everybody, “Bozeman said. “It’s not about their disability, it’s about their ability.”
For the players on the team, this adaptive sport has given them an opportunity that they normally wouldn’t be able to pursue, to travel and play in a competitive league and to showcase their skills and abilities. Robert Gordon, a 21-year-old resident of St. Petersburg and current student at St. Pete College majoring in Communications, is one of the team’s leaders and has played for the Strong Dogs on and off since he was 15.
Gordon, who was born with spina bifida, is thrilled with the chance to play the sport. “Growing up, I got tired of just watching my friends play and I didn’t know about adaptive sports at the time, so I did some research and found the team,” he said.
The Strong Dogs are ranked fifth in the county in Division II in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. They recently hosted a six-team Sunshine Shootout Wheelchair Basketball Tournament where they went 2-2.
Currently, they practice two hours a day, twice a week at the All People’s Life Center on 6105 E. Sligh Ave., Tampa, in pursuit of their eighth consecutive appearance in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association tournament, which will be held March 29-April 2 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Some people may view adaptive sports as an inspiration, but to the players, this is an opportunity to play sports and to be active.
“It’s a great honor to coach these men,” said Bozeman. “I think it’s the hardest basketball game in the world.”
Both Bozeman and Gordon encourage people to come out and watch the team play. For more information, search on Facebook for its page at @tbsdofficial.