The 2015 Annual Matthew Sapolin Memorial Wheelchair Basketball Tournament took place November 7 and 8 in the Bronx, with the Bulova Stetson Nets, based in Hackensack, NJ, defeating the Los Angeles Hotwheels, in thrilling back and forth action, 57-56 in the championship game. Tournament MVP Jonathan Torres made a free throw with six seconds left in the game to seal the victory. Also competing were the Nassau Kings (Garden City, NY), New England Blazers (Malden, MA), and the Brooklyn Nets. The tournament was hosted by NYC & Company, New York City’s destination marketing organization, and Independence Care System (ICS) sponsored the event, to honor Matthew Sapolin, who was a good friend to our organization.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Sapolin Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in 2002 and in 2006 named him Commissioner, a post Sapolin held until he passed away from cancer in 2011 at age 41. Bloomberg called Sapolin “The perfect embodiment of so many essential New York traits — passionate about justice and tireless in his pursuit of equal access and opportunity for all New Yorkers.” This commitment was showcased through his life, professional work, and passion for sports. For example, Sapolin’s blindness didn’t deter him from earning Bachelor and Master’s degrees from New York University nor prevent him from serving as the school’s varsity wresting team co-captain.
During his tenure as Commissioner, Sapolin successfully led several initiatives that enhanced the lives of people with disabilities. These included increasing the number of accessible taxis, strengthening enforcement of building codes to make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, fighting to make the 9/11 Memorial and 311 technology accessible, and increasing audible pedestrian crossings.
When approached about sponsoring this year’s wheelchair basketball tournament in memory of Sapolin, ICS jumped at the opportunity. “This made a lot of sense for us on multiple levels,” said Loreen Lonnie, ICS SVP for Marketing and Communications. “The great work Matt did at the Mayor’s Office, which continues on today, supports independence for people with disabilities. These efforts are completely aligned with ICS’s mission. Also, the tournament allowed us to connect with our targeted audience—adults with physical disabilities—and highlight our comprehensive wheelchair program and our specialized services supporting members with spinal cord injuries.”
History of the Tournament and Wheelchair Basketball’s Positive Impact
The Annual Matthew Sapolin Memorial Wheelchair Basketball Tournament was originally known as the NYC Mayor’s Cup Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, renamed in memory of Sapolin in 2012. Sapolin was a driving force behind the start of the tournament in 2001 and helped guide it to become one of the most prestigious in the country.
Wheelchair basketball can have strong and broad positive impact—both as it pertains to people with disabilities and able-bodied individuals, which Edy Lopz, a member of the Nassau Kings, can attest to. “The sport did wonders for me as I was originally trying to play able-bodied basketball after losing one of my legs in the Navy,” said Lopez, who has been playing wheelchair basketball for 25 years. “However, I broke my prostheses on multiple occasions while playing and was told by my doctor I should look into wheelchair basketball. I haven’t looked back since, and it’s been a tremendously positive experience.”
Lopez, through clinics and interactions with people with disabilities, has used wheelchair basketball to connect with and inspire many people with disabilities to become more active. “The sport is highly competitive, gets you physically and mentally fit, and teaches individuals to find ways to persevere and get things done,” said Lopez. “These are lessons that can, and often are, applied to day-to-day life scenarios as there isn’t any particular pamphlet that teaches how to live with a disability.”
Lopez also uses the sport to dispel myths that able-bodied people often have about people with disabilities. “We sometimes do clinics for abled-bodied individuals to create awareness and showcase that people with disabilities can produce and compete at a high level—on the court and in life,” said Lopez.
Background on Wheelchair Basketball
Wheelchair basketball originated in 1946 after paralyzed World War II veterans began playing the sport in VA Hospitals. Shortly after, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), which became the governing body of the sport in the United States, was established. The sport took off in the early 90’s and today over 200 teams from across the country are affiliated with the NWBA. The NWBA has also acted as a pioneer—supporting the birth of hundreds of teams across the globe, including outfits from Canada, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The United States has a national team that competes globally, including during the Paralympic Games and at the World Championships.
To learn more about wheelchair basketball, or to find a team in your area, visit the National Wheelchair Basketball Association website at www.nwba.org.