Recovering Soldiers at the Fort Benning Soldier Recovery Unit in Georgia participated in a wheelchair basketball program this past summer. (Photo courtesy of Annalise Doyle)
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Recovering Soldiers at the Fort Benning Soldier Recovery Unit in Georgia participated in a wheelchair basketball program this past summer. (Photo courtesy of Annalise Doyle)
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Recovering Soldiers at the Fort Benning Soldier Recovery Unit in Georgia participated in a wheelchair basketball program this past summer. (Photo courtesy of Annalise Doyle)
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ARLINGTON, Va. — After a long hiatus due to the coronavirus, wheelchair basketball is back at the Fort Benning Soldier Recovery Unit (SRU) in Georgia. And the players couldn't be happier.

The SRU brought back wheelchair basketball this summer for the first time since it was shut down when the COVID-19 outbreak hit in early 2020. They still aren't able to use the indoor gym due to the ongoing pandemic, but they were able to shift outdoors while it was still warm out.

Staff Sgt. Harold Nowden is one of the regular participants. He joined the SRU in May 2019 and expects to return to the civilian world soon. The basketball program has been an important part of the recovery process for him that he sorely missed when it had to be discontinued temporarily.

“I wanted to try something different,” he said, noting that he picked up the sport just a couple months after arriving at the SRU. “I saw people out there playing, and I wanted to participate.”

Annalise Doyle, recreation therapist at the Fort Benning SRU, said the sessions are held once per week.

"They had to learn a lot of different ways to maneuver a wheelchair," Doyle said. "Some didn't know much about basketball, or knew the differences between wheelchair basketball and standard basketball."

Those differences take some getting used to for those who are new to the sport. For example, in wheelchair basketball you don't have to constantly dribble — you dribble the ball once, then you can do two pushes of your wheelchair, and then you have to dribble again or it's ruled a traveling violation. There's no foul for double-dribbling either.

Everything else is the same as any other game of hoops: games are scored the same way, the basket is the same height, and the three-point line is the same distance.

But it's not just the rules that are different from standard basketball — there are also things to get used to when it comes to the mechanics of the game. Since players are sitting the whole time, it's harder to get as much power into a shot compared to standing, so players have to adjust for the dynamic.

Nowden has experienced that first-hand.

“Trying to shoot out of that chair is a challenging job when you first pick it up,” he said. “Your strength is cut in half. Then trying to do a layup, that takes practice as well.”

But ultimately, that’s just like any new sport you have to learn and adjust to, and Nowden has enjoyed the process. Now, he’s so hooked on the sport that once he departs the SRU in late October, he’s registering for a wheelchair basketball program in nearby Atlanta and plans to try out for the Warrior Games next year.

Right now, about 10 people participate each week in the sport, Doyle said. Sometimes, there are only six people at a session, so in those situations they turn it into a half-court three-on-three game.

While the oncoming cold weather threatens to put the game back on ice for a little while, having it back for the summer and fall has been a boon for the Soldiers, Doyle said.

"The people who were here before were very happy to see it back," she said.

Wheelchair basketball is important for so many reasons, she added.

"It helps their body, and there's teamwork that goes on, so they're socializing," she said. "Also, I think it shows them that just because you can't do something the standard way, that doesn't mean you can't do it another way. It's a great example of how adapting to something you like is doable."

Hopefully, the indoor gym will open at some point this winter so they can continue playing it while waiting for the warm summer months to return. But regardless, it's already helped Nowden with his recovery.

"It has made me be even more outgoing with my disability," he said. "People don't see me as having a disability, they see me as a person hanging around other people with this disability and just fitting in. No one's judging me. We just have fun."

The Army Warrior Care and Transition Program is now the Army Recovery Care Program. Although the name has changed, the mission remains the same: to provide quality complex case management to the Army's wounded, ill and injured Soldiers.