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He's Got Game
Electrical Engineering Professor is an Athlete for All Seasons


The atmosphere is saturated with tension. Hopes are realized. Dreams are crushed. In the span of 48 minutes, friends become adversaries and rivalries deepen. The air is filled with sweat, the sharp echo of a hard rubber ball against the slick wood of the court. There is shouting between teammates; the jawing between players from opposing teams; sharp words of anger or encouragement from the bench. There is a pause during the swish of a lay up that never touches the backboard. The only sound missing is the squeak of sneakers and the pounding of feet. Instead, you’ll hear gloved hands slapping against wheels and the strain of muscles as players wheel themselves from one end of the court to the other.

It is a scene from the life of the Madonna Magic, Nebraska’s wheelchair basketball team sponsored by Madonna Rehabilitation Center. “It is a very physical game,” said Lance Perez, associate professor of electrical engineering. “And we’re always competing for our division championship. We’ve finished as high as the Sweet Sixteen.”

Perez has been playing with the Magic for six years, but he has been playing wheelchair basketball for more than 20. “It’s a great sport—very competitive and intense,” Perez said. The roots of wheelchair basketball can be traced to World War II, when returning veterans confined to their wheelchairs needed an outlet for their frustrations and unchanneled energy. Today, that outlet has produced the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), which features 22 conferences and 165 teams from throughout the world. The NBA sponsors some teams and others, like the Madonna Magic, are sponsored by local businesses. “Madonna is very generous in sponsoring our team,” Perez said. “They are committed to enriching the lives of the disabled and representing successful rehabilitation.”

The rules of the game are familiar. Some are taken from the NBA—12-minute quarters, the 24-second shot clock and six fouls for each player. In other instances, NCAA guidelines are used. And then there are rules unique to the NWBA. The wheelchairs players use, which are specialized for athletic activities, must meet certain requirements. When a player is executing a dribble, for example, he or she is wheeling their chair by two pushes on the wheels followed by one or more bounces of the ball to the floor, after which the player may start pushing again. Though wheelchair basketball doesn’t have positions in the traditional sense, Perez essentially plays forward. “I’m very tough on defense and get a lot of rebounds,” Perez said. His defensive abilities are enhanced by a wheelchair designed for athletic endeavors. “There is a lot of camber in the wheels for stability and there is a fifth wheel on the back to prevent players from flipping over,” Perez said.

During the regular season—a series of 10 games between October and March—players from throughout the state play other teams from St. Louis, Kansas City and Omaha. The Magic also participates in exhibitions at Nebraska basketball games. “We did an exhibition at the University of Kansas Phog Allen Field House—that was a highlight,” Perez said. “Exhibitions provide the opportunity to increase awareness and show young kids, particularly disabled ones, that there are things they can do.”

If adult amateur competition were a varsity sport, Perez would letter in every season. As the basketball season wraps up, Perez prepares for softball. “I’ve always been athletic,” Perez said. “I’ve found camaraderie in these sports. Competing is lots of fun, and I’ve made a lot of good friends.” Wheelchair softball is played on hard surfaces, with a 16-inch slow pitch softball so players can keep one hand on their wheelchairs while catching the ball without a glove. Between May and August, Perez plays third base with the Nebraska Barons, sponsored by Alegent Health, in Omaha. The Barons, defending national champions of the National Wheelchair Softball Association (NWSA), also practice once a week and play teams from throughout the region. The defending champions hosted and won this year’s NWSA championship in Omaha/Council Bluffs.

Although Perez enjoys team sports, there are moments when he craves solitude. During those times, he cycles, using a three-wheeled bike he pedals with his hands. Though he doesn’t compete, he enjoys taking his bike out in the morning, along the MoPac Trail, which runs from Lincoln to Walton, Eagle, Elmwood, and Wabash, Neb. “I enjoy the fact that cycling is solitary,” Perez said. “I can go out in the morning and solve my problems.” Each year, Perez and his brother also embark on longer bike trips. In recent years, he has traveled along the C-O Canal, Katy Trail and the Allegheny Trail—each nearly 180 miles in length.

—Roxane Gay