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Wheelchair Bulls: Better than the original?

April 01, 2014|By Matt Lindner | For RedEye

A scene familiar enough to make Chicago basketball fans wistful for the glory days of the '90s unfolded in a cavernous gym on an unseasonably cold March morning.

No. 23 on the Bulls pushes the ball upcourt against the Pacers, sees an open man and lofts a crisp pass that finds him underneath the hoop in one fluid motion. Ball meets net. Two points go on the board.

"For us, we're always pushing and we're always using our arms," he said. "Shooting gets difficult."

All of 10 miles in with roughly 20,000 or so fewer fans in the stands separate Edgewater's Broadway Armory Park from the plush confines of the United Center. And it's doubtful anyone on the street is going to mistake Chicago Wheelchair Bulls star Kyle Gribble for the man who made the number 23 famous for the NBA franchise.

But in this gym on this day, it is the sturdily built, 18-year-old Elgin resident who takes center stage.

"I see wheelchair basketball the same as able-bodied except that we're better," he said. "It takes a lot more conditioning in my eyes."

Chicago has established itself as a hotbed of wheelchair basketball talent, with four teams spread from the northern suburbs to the city's south side. Much of that talent was on display over the weekend at the Neal Radbel Memorial Tournament at Armory Park, a tune-up for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association national championships. That tournament takes place April 3-6 in Louisville, Ky.

"It's growing and getting better and getting more notoriety as time goes," Wheelchair Bulls star Dave Radbel said.

And while Gribble is the future of wheelchair basketball in Chicago, Radbel is undoubtedly its present, the focal point on offense for a team ranked in the top 20 in the NWBA.

Throughout the team's contest against the Pacers recently, he shows a knack for finding the open man in traffic, expertly spinning his chair on a dime and sinking shots from all over the court, despite suffering from an injury that would sideline most athletes.

"I've got a broken finger at this moment from a tournament three weeks ago," the 35-year-old South Loop resident said, shrugging. "A guy decided he was going to put my hand in his spoke and it didn't feel too good. Still a little stiff but it's all right."

Aesthetically, wheelchair basketball is like watching cars on the Kennedy attempt to play a game of five-on-five during rush hour. The sound of metal crashing into metal echoes through the gym on every possession as players jockey for position, using their chairs as an extension of their bodies to create scoring opportunities for themselves and their teammates.

With constant collisions, injuries such as the one Radbel suffered are the rule, not the exception.

"There's a lot more contact than in able-bodied basketball," Gribble said. "You can get run over if you fall over, jam fingers, broken bones."

Their relationship with the NBA's Bulls is strong.

The Bulls have sponsored the Wheelchair Bulls for nearly 30 years. Throughout the season, they'll play exhibitions at the United Center during halftime.

"We've met Derrick [Rose]," Radbel said. "He came into our locker room when he was hurt last year. Our relationship is awesome with them."

As for how he and his teammates would fare against their NBA counterparts in a wheelchair hoops duel, Radbel has no doubt as to how that would turn out.

"We'd kill 'em," he said, laughing. "They wouldn't be able to push in chairs as fast and as expert as we are."

That's because wheelchair hoops requires an entirely different skill set.

"Learning how to use the chair is the biggest thing," Gribble said. "If we ended up playing against the real Bulls, it would be chaos."

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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