Meridian Star

Sports

January 25, 2014

Wheelchair basketball makes its way to Meridian

Sitting in his motorized wheelchair on the baseline of the George Washington Carver Middle School gymnasium, Antonio Wright wore a smile almost two decades in the making.

    The former Hinds Community College football player was paralyzed in a car wreck 17 years ago, forcing him into a wheelchair — a month later his little brother Ahmad was murdered.

    From there, Wright was determined to be a fighter. The injury didn’t stop him, it only slowed him down. Wright graduated from Jackson State University in 2003. He later spent time as a strength and conditioning coach for the Tigers before coaching at several Mississippi high schools, including Provine, Murrah, Gentry and McComb — all from his chair.

    Wright retired from coaching in 2010, but his time away from sports were short-lived.

    “When I stopped coaching football, I was literally bored,” he said. “I had nothing to do. I realized something. If I’m bored, somebody else has got to be bored. It all started from there.”

    In January 2011, Wright founded Metro Area Community Empowerment, a non-profit designed to give Jackson citizens with disabilities the opportunity to compete in a wide array of sports from softball to skydiving.

    “It just started with three guys playing wheelchair basketball,” Wright said. “Now we have 20 playing softball, 18 on the varsity basketball team and about 15 on the varsity tennis team.”

    As MACE grew and grew, so did Wright’s name in the Jackson community. Five months ago, he received a call that gave him the opportunity to take that influence to a whole new level.

    Dave and Lisa Elliston of Nashville had recently moved to the Jackson area and were having trouble finding a basketball league for their son Jonathan who was wheelchair bound.

    “I didn’t have a prep team,” Wright said. “But, I had a non-profit, so if you wanted to start a prep team, let’s do it.”

    Using leftover chairs, the Ellistons and Wright put together a team of five different families, making calls and recruiting players everywhere they could.

    “We went from just Jonathan to two or three kids,” Dave Elliston said. “We just used word of mouth, we printed up some fliers, we had the media come out and here we are at 11.”

    The Mississippi WheelCats, a basketball team of kids ages 5-18, were born. While most of the WheelCats come from the Jackson area, the team serves as Mississippi’s only wheelchair basketball team and is open to players across the state.

    Meridian 8-year-old Aiden Bridwell was the fifth member of the team and participated in WheelCats’ first game, a tournament in North Carolina Nov. 1-2, 2013

    “They’re at the age where all their buddies are out playing baseball and softball and soccer, and there hasn’t been anything for them to do,” Aiden’s mother Kelli Bridwell said. “It’s given Aiden courage and self confidence. We’ve seen a world of difference in all of our guys.”

    Saturday, the WheelCats met up with the Huntingdon College Red Wings of Montgomery, Ala. The two teams chose Meridian as a midway meeting point.

    The game — a nail-biting 37-28 win for the Red Wings in double overtime. The outcome — so much more.

    Elliston and Wright hope the game in Meridian will further spread the sport in Mississippi. The WheelCats will compete in their next tournament on Feb. 14-16 in Nashville. For information how to join go to macemississippi.org.

    “That was some game,” Wright said, still wearing the same smile. “This is so cool for me. I am floored. I am so proud to say, man, we did this.”

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