Phillip Mayer raced to the other side of the basketball court to assist a player with a pivotal shot just before halftime.
The crowd cheered and coaches shouted out plays from the sidelines as the 10-year-old and his team went on to win the game 26-22.
Mayer loves sports, but his spinal muscular atrophy has forced him to use an electric wheelchair for most of his life.
The Howard Beach native is on the junior varsity team for the Henry Viscardi School, an educational institution for preschool-age children to adults who have severe physical disabilities.
“I just love the team because it gives me a chance to be with my friends,” Mayer said during halftime. “It really helps me socially.”
On Saturday, Mayer participated in the 21st annual Henry Viscardi Sportsmanship wheelchair basketball tournament in its gymnasium in Albertson as the culmination of the fall season. The Viscardi Cougars played against the Westchester School for Special Children and the Cerebral Palsy of Westchester school.
“He’s used to everyone doing things for him so when he’s on the court it teaches him to do everything on his own,” said Angela Mayer, Phillip’s mother. “At a regular school he wouldn’t be on the basketball team but here his life is totally normal.”
The coaches said they do not try to go easy on the players and make sure it stays a competitive sport.
“This is what life is. These kids aren’t being pampered, this is tough basketball,” said John Kemp, president and CEO of the Henry Viscardi School and Center. “I think that really teaches them a lot.”
The players use three hoops at 2 feet, 4 feet and 8 feet depending on their physical capabilities. Each player wore a different colored headband indicating the hoop level they used. Students can steal the basketball only from people with the same colored headband.
The coaches of the wheelchair league aim to teach the children more than just basketball techniques.
“This program has so many benefits because it gives them a sense of camaraderie, athleticism, school spirit and exposure to what is out there for a disabled individual,” said Joe Slaninka, head coach of the Viscardi Cougars junior varsity team. “It’s a great sense of accomplishment because people always tell them, ‘No you can’t do it,’ but this is something they can really go out and do well.”
Shaun Cardenas, assistant coach of the Viscardi junior varsity and varsity teams, said that students at the school often have trouble socializing because they can’t easily travel to each other’s homes.
“They don’t get the chance to be with friends all the time outside of the classroom, which is something we often take for granted,” said Cardenas. “Our practices are a large part of their hanging out time and this tournament brings them all together.”
Overall, the Henry Viscardi junior varsity and varsity teams took first place with the Westchester School for Special Children at second and the Cerebral Palsy School of Westchester at third.
“Winning isn’t the biggest thing here. I always tell my students to try their best and forget about the rest,” said Tony Bradley, head coach of the Westchester School for Special Children. “They really live for this game.”