The point guard takes the ball down the court, drives toward the basket, pulls up just short of the baseline outside the paint and then, with her back to the hoop, heaves a pinpoint cross-court pass to a teammate who immediately puts in a set shot for two points.
It’s a prime example of timing and teamwork, made all the more exceptional because the players are members of the Viscardi School varsity team in Albertson, executing plays from wheelchairs that handicap their movements—but not their basketball smarts and skills.
“I don’t like shooting the ball a lot. I think that’s a ball hog kind of thing,” said Mariah, the team’s heady point guard, who deftly demonstrated her strong outside shot earlier in the game. “I like getting assists.”
The scrappy team leader directs traffic on the court, talking to her teammates and playing tough, determined defense that creates turnovers.
“I like competition. I like getting up in their faces,” Mariah said.
It’s a style of play that typifies the Viscardi varsity players as a group.
“It’s exciting. I like to play hard,” said Destini, a forward who is also a force at both ends of the court.
But the Viscardi players exude a joy for the game itself, along with the competitive aspects of their approach.
“It’s mostly the game, being part of a sport that I really enjoy playing,” said varsity veteran Angel.
“Talk to each other. Communicate. You’re teammates. Have fun,” Viscardi basketball coach Joe Salanika exhorts his team during one timeout.
“You might be in a wheelchair or have some other type of disability, but you’re playing basketball,” he said when asked about the attitude of his team.
Salanika said he stresses sportsmanship, camaraderie, a competitive spirit and teamwork in his players. The Albertson school, providing education for children with severe disabilities, currently maintains elementary school, junior varsity and varsity basketball squads, which comprise 60 of the school’s 170 students. An alumni team also competed in this year’s 23rd annual wheelchair basketball tournament.
Saturday, Dec. 6, marked Salanika’s 22nd year as coach in the 23 years of the Viscardi School’s basketball tourney. The Viscardi varsity enjoyed the home advantage of an enthusiastic crowd in pulling out a four-point victory, 30-26 over the visiting team from the Westchester School for Special Children.
“It’s probably the highlight of the year for the kids. The kids are proud to play for the school,” said Lauren Marzo, Viscardi School director of development.
She sees the team competition giving the students who participate a sense of self-confidence, adding that it also reinforces the spirit that pervades the student body. “Everybody loves each other here. There’s no pettiness as there is in other schools,” Marzo said.
Speaking on behalf of the Lisa Beth Gerstman Foundation, which sponsors the annual tournament, Brad Gerstman said his family felt the annual Viscardi event was a good way to honor the memory of his sister, who died at age 11 in a bus accident in 1970.
“We really enjoy assisting everybody to put this on,” he said. “There’s nothing better than young kids playing basketball. What can be better than that?”