By KATIE STEWART
Hands spin wheels at incredible speeds and shoot basketballs across the court.
At the Pioneer Classic at The Lakeshore Foundation, players race up and down the court and the crowd cheers like at any other basketball tournament, but for this one the athletes play in wheelchairs.
“Walking into Lakeshore Foundation’s field house can put anyone in sensory overload,” said Mary Allison Milford, recreation specialist and one of the coaches for the Lakeshore Sharks. “The smell of metal grinding against metal and burning rubber as tire treads screech to a halt upon the hardwood greet fans at the door.”
The Foundation will host its 25th Annual Pioneer Classic wheelchair basketball tournament the weekend of Jan. 13-15. The National Wheelchair Basketball Association Division III, Women’s Division and youth wheelchair basketball teams travel from across the country to participate in the annual tournament.
“The Pioneer Classic is arguably one of the longest-running sporting events in Birmingham and has showcased the nation’s best talent in wheelchair basketball over the years, from up-and-coming young players to Paralympians,” said Lakeshore Foundation President Jeff Underwood. “We are always proud to host
this special tournament.”
The event began in 1987 when Jo Fowler and other members of BellSouth’s all-volunteer community service organization, now known as the AT&T Pioneers, raised $6,000 to fund Lakeshore Foundation’s first wheelchair basketball invitational. Twenty-five years later, the Pioneer Classic has become a long-standing tradition among competitive players as well as an opportunity for newcomers to experience the growing sport.
“This event is one of the premier wheelchair basketball tournaments in the United States based on size and level of competition,” said Lisa Hilborn, associate director of athletics and recreation.
Teams come from all over, including Texas, Illinois, Nashville, New York, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia.
“From the prep division to collegiate, Lakeshore brings in the nation’s top teams to compete,” Milford said. “The Pioneer Classic Championship is a very prestigious title to hold.”
The Lakeshore Foundation also has two youth teams that participate in the tournament, the Lakeshore Lakers varsity team and the Lakeshore Sharks prep team. While the country’s top wheelchair athletes are facing off, these teams train to one day become like the athletes they get to see in the tournament.
“I love coaching the Sharks, which is our team of 6 to 12 year olds, because I get to be a part of the kids’ earliest stages of basketball development,” Milford said.
“Here is where they learn the fundamentals of the game and begin to set goals for the future. I began playing wheelchair basketball when I was their age, and it is so cool to come full circle and give back to athletes that I can relate to.”
The tight-knit wheelchair basketball community welcomes the public to come out and be a part of their sport as well. The event gives the Homewood community a chance to witness the excitement of the sport and to see the outcome of all the hard work of the athletes.
The Pioneer Classic tournament is open to the public to attend. There are also opportunities to volunteer. For more information, visit www.lakeshore.org.