A chance to compete again

The Baltimore Sun

The 60-point lead had been obliterated. Ray Popik's wheelchair basketball team now clung to a 2-point advantage with two minutes remaining.

But this showdown wasn't about the score. Popik was thrilled just to be able to race down the court and jostle for rebounds with his friends and family.

A self-described sports fanatic, the 25-year-old Aberdeen resident follows college football, baseball and basketball avidly - "the Terps, of course." During the summer, Popik watches the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team in person, by virtue of his job as an usher at Ripken Stadium. But he often tires of being a spectator and longs to compete.

Popik has a rare genetic, neurological disease called ataxia telangiectasia, which affects the brain and nerves, causing delayed motor skills, poor balance and slurred speech. Popik has been in a wheelchair since he was 8. When he turned 21, Popik was too old for teenage recreational leagues, and disabilities in his upper body limit him from playing on a full-fledged adult rec team.

So his family and friends assembled their own team to give Popik a chance to compete again. They donned blue jerseys and got into wheelchairs for the first time. Calling themselves the ShARCs, Popik's friends and family challenged the Maryland Ravens, a recreational wheelchair team, to a charity game at the Aberdeen High School gym Thursday. The proceeds went to The ARC: Northern Chesapeake Region, a nonprofit for people with developmental disabilities.

"It was very nice to get back, since I'm too old to play in the recreational league," Popik said. "It was really fun, as it always is."

Many of Popik's friends and family struggled to dribble the ball and steer the wheelchair at the same time. They fumbled passes and launched shots that missed the basket completely.

"It's like all of a sudden you don't have any legs and the basket is almost 12 feet high," said Cliff Giles, Popik's stepfather.

The Ravens were another story. The team scored 76 points with only four players. With crisp passes and brisk shots, they made consistent swishes.

"It's like the Aberdeen High School team playing the Harlem Globetrotters," said Dequinne Guary, a ShARCs player.

By halftime, the Ravens, who had played the first 10 minutes of the game with only two players, had scored 50 points. Meanwhile, the ShARCS had scored just 2 points. So the Ravens gave them 16 extra points - two for every attempted shot. Soon, the playful trash talking ensued, with Ravens scorekeeper Eugia Dennis ribbing ShARC player Bernard Barnes.

"Get outta that chair! You're making that wheelchair look bad," Dennis said.

Barnes was the only ShARC to score during the 40-minute game.

"They call me 'Nothing-but-the-Net Barnes.' I guess that makes me the MVP of the game," he said.

Barnes' 2 points turned out to be critical. At the end of the game, the ShARCS held onto their 2-point lead, winning the game 78-76 - with help from all the bonus points the Ravens gave.

The "loss" didn't bother Mike Shaffer, a Ravens player.

"We love these kinds of games," he said. "This is where we can show our skills, our tricks and put our own spin on the game."

Popik plans to have another game next year.

"He hasn't been able to compete like this since he turned 21," said Debbie Giles, Popik's mother. "So this means a lot."


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