July 1, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Medina residents active with basketball

Cleveland Wheelchair Cavaliers player Dan Lemmer, of Broadview Heights, sets up to pass during the team's final game of the season Sunday at the Brunswick Community Recreation and Fitness Center. (DAN POMPILI / GAZETTE)

Cleveland Wheelchair Cavaliers player Dan Lemmer, of Broadview Heights, sets up to pass during the team’s final game of the season Sunday at the Brunswick Community Recreation and Fitness Center. (DAN POMPILI / GAZETTE)

The Cleveland Wheelchair Cavaliers could be called the Medina County Cavs.

That’s because the head coach and three players call Medina County home and the team recently moved its practice facility to the Brunswick Recreation Center, where they played their final game of the season Sunday.

“It’s been a great experience to be here,” said head coach Tim Fox. “We’re hoping to host at least one tournament a year.”

The team became the Wheelchair Cavaliers in 1992, when they partnered with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Clinic and Invacare, the Elyria-based maker of Top End wheelchairs, to compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.

Fox, a Brunswick resident, said the team practiced in Brook Park until January after scheduling conflicts left them looking for a better fit.

He said Brunswick City Council and Recreation Center Director John Piepsny helped make the facility the Cavs’ new home.

That makes getting to practice easier for players Erin Fakan of Hinckley, Paul Zinn of Medina and Erik Whetstone of Brunswick.

Whetstone and Fakan were both born with spina bifida — a birth defect that stops the vertebrae from forming properly around the spinal cord. It varies in severity. Whetstone can walk while Fakan is mostly bound to her wheelchair.

“I’ve always wanted to play basketball, and it’s helped me stay more active, which is not easy to do being stuck in a chair,” said Fakan.

Fakan has been with the team since 2011, and also plays baseball and participates in winter skiing — a sport much like bob-sledding, using two crutches with small skis at the ends to help steer.

Unlike Whetstone and Fakan, Zinn came to use a wheelchair because of an accident. He suffered a fall from a roof in 2010 while working for the family business, Zinn Mechanical.

He lost a vertebrae and suffered nerve damage in his legs and feet.

All the players said the team has given them the opportunity to stay active and have fun while doing something meaningful.

“It gave me the opportunity to make some wonderful friends and great teammates,” Zinn said.

The team also works with disabled children and adults, building awareness of disabilities through community outreach, including halftime appearances, speaking engagements, demonstrations and volunteer work.

They have connections to the Wounded Warrior Project, too.

Former Wheelchair Cavs star Steve Smutak of Berea left the team after 31 years — playing since well before they were the Wheelchair Cavs — to become the program director for a Wounded Warrior branch in Virginia.

Smutak helped lead the team to a national championship.

That’s right, a national championship for a Cleveland sports team. In 2010, the Wheelchair Cavs won the NWBA Division 3 National Championship, in Denver.

Since Smutak’s departure last year, another player leads the team and keeps them ever mindful of military sacrifices. Darron Lewis, of Cleveland, has only been with the team for this season but Fox said he’s become their leading scorer.

On July 11, 2012, while serving in Afghanistan, Lewis lost his left leg below the knee and suffered severe fractures in his right leg from a improvised explosive device.

While healing in San Antonio, Texas, he saw the Wheelchair Cavs on YouTube and the former high-school football player saw his chance to play sports again.

“I said ‘wow! The Cavs have a wheelchair team!’ and I knew I was coming home soon. So I got out of my depression stage and got going here and now I love it,” he said.

The Cavs played four games in this weekend’s tournament, finishing 2-2. They won the first game against the Connecticut Spokebenders 41-39, then beat Moraine. But they fell to Pittsburgh, and lost to Connecticut on a last second shot in the final game, 36-34.

Contact reporter Dan Pompili at (330) 721-4012 or dpompili@medina-gazette.com.