The Rochester Wheels: Celebrating 40 Years of The Rochester Wheels

Proving it can be done: How Rochester got its Wheels

(written in 2012)

Wheelchair basketball player and retired RIT vice president Jack Smith proved that creating a wheelchair basketball team could be done. Not once. Not twice. But three times. And yet, he never sought the spotlight. He just wanted to play, have fun, and enjoy the game of basketball.

“Who founded The Rochester Wheels is relatively unimportant,” says Jack Smith in his charming, direct way.

“The real credit should go to the many wheelchair athletes who have played over the years, and have been dedicated to developing the skills that have resulted in a winning and highly skilled wheelchair basketball team in Rochester.”

When Jack moved to Rochester from Philadelphia in 1969, he wanted to play basketball. The only problem was there wasn’t a wheelchair basketball team in the area.

Wheelchair basketball wasn’t a radically new idea. It was developed by World War II veterans as part of their rehabilitation. As soldiers returned home from combat with paralysis, amputations, or other injuries that required the use of wheelchairs, they had to adjust. What better way to satisfy the needs of wounded warriors than with sports? Wheelchair basketball, as well as other wheelchair sports – also called adaptive sports – were created. In a few years, wheelchair basketball’s popularity expanded to include other individuals with physical disabilities, and spread around the world.

The opportunity to play, learn, and compete in the sport of wheelchair basketball brings joy to many people with disabilities.

While a student at the University of Pittsburgh in 1959, Jack organized a group of wheelchair basketball players and created a team. A few years later while working as a news reporter in Philadelphia, he galvanized wheelchair basketball players into competitive action yet again.

“In 1970 I put out a call in Rochester for wheelchair athletes, to assess interest in having a wheelchair basketball team in Rochester,” says Jack. “Steve Barbato and Jo Ann (Keyser) Armstrong were among the first to respond.”

Before they were officially known as The Rochester Wheels, the team practiced at RIT. Two years later they moved to the gym in the Al Sigl building.

In the spring of 1972, Jack and his merry band of wheelchair basketball players introduced The Wheels to the Rochester community through a series of exhibition games with faculty and staff from high schools and colleges throughout the area.

“We would give the able-bodied teams big point advantages,” says Jack. “And work hard to show our skills.”

The team’s efforts paid off. The schools supported and understood what The Wheels, a member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association were striving to achieve. “The exhibitions demonstrated to the community why no limits should be placed on individuals with disabilities,” says Jack.

As a result, The Wheels received donations from the games and used the funds to buy equipment. These iconic fundraising exhibitions continue and are one of many reasons that The Wheels continue to exist today.

“The Wheels helped to get SportsNet organized,” says Rochester Rehabilitation’s Nancy Steinkamp, who with her background in therapy and sports and recreation, was asked to manage SportsNet and support the sponsorship of The Wheels over 13 years ago.

“The Wheels are one of the few organized, competitive wheelchair sports teams in Rochester,” says Nancy.

Basketball doesn’t build character, it reveals it.

There is no better man who exemplified the above statement than the late Steve Barbato, a relentless promoter of wheelchair basketball, 30-plus-year player, and coach for more than 5 years until his untimely death in 2009.

“When Steve first touched the basketball,” recalls Jack, “he couldn’t touch the basket from underneath. He had to learn everything, but nobody stuck with anything the way Steve did.”

Born with one arm and one leg, Steve was always an active kid. At 17 years old, he was already a fierce competitor in track and field and in the swimming pool.

“Steve transitioned from the big meets in track and field, to basketball,” says Steve’s brother Jeff Barbato. “Competition helped build Steve’s confidence and self-esteem. He wasn’t bothered by much.”

Under Jack’s guidance, Steve learned the rules of wheelchair basketball (essentially the same as traditional basketball) and improved his one-handed dribbling, catching, rebounding, shooting, and passing techniques. While other players used both of their arms – one to maneuver the chair and the other to dribble, shoot, and pass the ball – Steve used his short, strong leg to pedal the chair around the court.

Strapped into a moving chair, Steve could stop on a dime, balance, twist, turn, shoot, – and most importantly assert himself.

“It was amazing to watch him,” says Jeff. “He was inspirational and a major influence on me as well as other people.”

“I always admired Steve,” says Xavier Major, wheelchair basketball player and Wheels coach. “He was a mentor to me.”

While at Strong Hospital’s rehabilitation unit, Xavier – who had recently returned to Rochester from Alabama after sustaining a paralyzing gunshot wound to his back, – received a visit from a couple of Wheels players.

“We played basketball in the gym,” says Xavier. “I picked up quickly how to move around in the chair and I knew right away that I wanted to be part of basketball.”

In the fall of 1992, Xavier, engineer and technician for an international engineering services firm, joined The Wheels.

“Before long I was traveling, making friends, and building confidence,” says Xavier. “Steve and I usually drove together to games and talked about our families. I can’t express enough how much Steve loved his daughters and wanted the best for them.”

Steve’s brother Jeff echoes Xavier’s sentiments. “What made Steve a great coach was his built-in advocacy. He helped people grow, especially kids. He was always open and welcoming.”

“It’s not about your disability. It’s about what you can do.”

Fourteen years ago Josh Lewis, now 26, attended a wheelchair basketball exhibition at school. He recalls something that Steve said: ‘It’s not about your disability. It’s about what you can do.’ That message stuck with Josh and the following week he attended practice with The Wheels.

Steve encouraged Josh, who has a spinal cord injury as a result from a car accident when he was 4, and told him, ‘Do what you can and then do better.’

“I needed a lot of practice,” says Josh. “I could barely hit the net the first time. It took two to three months to hit the rim, but I kept trying.” Josh, now captain and guard on The Wheels, is happiest when he’s on the court playing, but he says it’s almost secondary to the camaraderie. “It’s a good feeling to be part of a team,” says Josh. “We can all relate to each other.”

Staying active in basketball helps Josh in other areas of life. Josh strives to spread positive thoughts whenever he speaks to school children, visits adults at Strong Hospital’s rehabilitation unit, volunteers at SportsNet exhibitions, and leading his team. Drawing on his experience and the words of encouragement he received from Steve Josh says, “I try to infuse confidence.”

Paying it forward: a legacy

“Josh Lewis is a phenomenal mentor and leader,” says Kristen Marcotte, who’s seen her son Chase grow into a confident teenager as a result of his involvement with SportsNet. Chase has been with The Rochester Rookies since he was 5 years old and with The Wheels since 9 years old.

Kristen recalls attending one of Chase’s first wheelchair basketball practices and watching him fall out of his chair.

“I remember seeing his sneakers go one way and his head another,” says Kristen. “I got up to help and I heard a voice say, ‘Mom, sit down.’ It was Steve. Josh and the rest of the players helped Chase get back into his chair. It was scary, but comforting.”

From that point on she knew that Chase was in the right place.

Chase, now 16 and a guard on The Wheels, says, “It didn’t freak me out when I fell the first time. It wasn’t a big deal. I’ve fallen many times. I've jammed almost all of my fingers and ripped my nails off. I get blisters all the time.”

“I love the challenge of the game. I may not be the best, but the challenge and friendship with the team is great. My friends are there. Josh is definitely someone I look up to. He’s one of the best role models. He’s encouraging. I definitely would consider him a big brother.”

Giving young people hope

“Over the years, The Rochester Wheels has given many young people hope,” says Jack, “because hope lies in the ability to learn basketball and compete, and encourage young people to excel in all areas of life.”

The Wheels officially became part of SportsNet in 1998. At the time, The Wheels existed as a competitive basketball team, but there was no recreational piece.

“When players retired, there was no recreation outlet,” says Nancy. SportsNet organized recreational wheelchair basketball so people of all abilities could give it a try in a fun atmosphere.

“The move to Rochester Rehabilitation allowed the team to raise money to keep going,” says Jack. “For a group to last that long is pretty good.”

“Rochester Rehabilitation is the reason The Wheels continued to grow and play. It’s had a profound effect on the lives of kids and adults with disabilities.”

While Jack was instrumental in establishing SportsNet and recruiting members for its advisory board, he emphasized that the real vision to make the program a reality lay with the determination of folks who worked it day in and day out.

Nancy adds that along with staff, “Volunteers are essential to The Wheels success. So are the fans who come out and cheer the team and players on whether it’s for exhibition games or competitive tournaments.”

“Wheelchair basketball is a lasting activity,” says Jack, who now lives in Houston, Texas with his wife Ellie. “It’s hard to measure, but I’ve seen with my own eyes the impact it’s had on competitors' lives. It offers hope.”

In the end it doesn’t really matter who started The Wheels. What matters is to play, have fun, and enjoy the game of wheelchair basketball.

Thank you Jack Smith and Steve Barbato – for your determination, inspiration, hope, and for leaving Rochester with a lasting legacy of wheelchair basketball.

Do you have a story or favorite memory to share about The Rochester Wheels? We invite you to post it on the wall of our Facebook Fan Page.

About Wheelchair Basketball

Wheelchair Basketball is an energetic sport offered to players who can use a manual wheelchair. Played on indoor or outdoor courts, the game simply requires a basketball and a goal. Rules follow closely those of traditional basketball.

About The Rochester Wheels

Established in 1972, The Rochester Wheels adult wheelchair basketball team demonstrates, through competition and exhibitions, the significant abilities of athletes with disabilities.

The team participates in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s (NWBA) Keystone Conference competing in the northeast region of the country. In addition to competition and tournaments, The Wheels also play exhibition games to increase awareness of wheelchair basketball. Audiences enjoy watching as the Wheels team members compete against faculty and staff of local schools and members of organizations in the area. Everyone plays the game from a wheelchair.

The Wheels currently meet on Wednesday nights to practice, and travel to various locations such as NYC, Ohio, and Pennsylvania for tournaments.

For more information about The Rochester Wheels or wheelchair basketball, please contact Anita O’Brien at 585.271.1894 extension 1742 or send an email to info@sportsnetny.org