TAMPA, Fla. - The center court at All People’s Life Center was filled with an assembly of athletes from across the country who’d come to town on a mission.
Each of the wheelchair basketball players was vying for a spot on the U.S. Men’s Paralympic Team. The designation would give them the chance to compete in the November ParaPan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, and travel to London for the 2012 Paralympics.
Bent on having those opportunities of a lifetime come to fruition, they participated in the last of four national trials on June 10-12, sponsored by the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department in conjunction with Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.
Andy Chasanoff, Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay sports coordinator, said following the trials coaches representing several wheelchair basketball teams from throughout the United States will select the top 25 players. Ninety-six men participated in the tryouts.
“It’s a tremendous honor for us as part of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department to be able to host this event,” Chasanoff said.
“It shows the commitment we have to athletes with disabilities and it’s a great opportunity for our Tampa Bay Paralympic Sport athletes to watch some of the best athletes in the country,” he said.
Paul Schulte of Bradenton, said Chasanoff, falls in that category of athletes considered by many to be among the best of the best.
Schulte, 32, who lost the use of his lower limbs in a car accident at age 10, positioned himself on the All People’s court along with the other athletes as they strategically maneuvered their chairs attempting to score baskets.
He, too, aspires to qualify for the team. But if he does, it won’t be a first.
Schulte, a mechanical engineer by profession, made his Paralympic Games debut in Sydney in 2000 as Team USA’s youngest player at age 21. That year, the team won bronze.
He earned a gold medal and was named most valuable player during the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation’s Gold Cup tournament in Kitakyushu, Japan, in 2002; and was captain of the silver medal-winning Team USA at the 2006 IWFG Gold Cup World Championships in Amsterdam.
Although he sat out in 2004, he returned to compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.
Schulte recalls a time after his accident when he wanted nothing to do with playing basketball in a wheelchair even though he’d been a sports enthusiast throughout his younger years.
“I didn’t think it was athletic or competitive,” said Schulte, who decided to give it a try at 14 and has been hooked ever since.
“To do well you’ve got to love it and you have to work hard to do what it takes,” he said.
Schulte, who is married and the father of a young son, works full time for Top End of Pinellas Park, which manufacturers specialty wheelchairs for top athletes, practices basketball and makes it a priority to spend quality time with his family.
Ronald Richardson, 55, whose leg was amputated in a forklift accident when he was 38, was among the spectators during the tryouts. He also plays sports on teams for the disabled and has known Schulte for many years.
“He was called Chair Jordan in high school after basketball great Michael Jordan. He was that good,” Richardson said. “But he’s really humble.”