LIMA — Speeding across the Bath Middle School gymnasium in a wheelchair made just for basketball, Brayden Thomas pivots and shoots.
Making the shot or not (most often he does), Brayden’s hands glide swiftly over the wheels, propelling his wheelchair to chase down the ball. A few seconds of dribbling and another shot.
A few of the seventh-grader’s classmates have wandered into the gym. Brayden secretly hopes they are watching.
“It was cool,” he later said of the small audience. “They might think I am cool now. They don’t believe that I play hockey and basketball. They don’t believe I can play sports.”
His classmates haven’t seen the slew of medals hanging from Brayden's bedroom mirror or the tournament pins lining his jacket. And they likely don’t know the Turnstone Flyers, the Fort Wayne-based wheelchair basketball team he centers, is ranked fourth in the nation among 16 teams.
“It is really hard work. Some of the teams are really good,” said Brayden, whose team will head to nationals in Louisville, Ky., in the spring.
Brayden has spina bifida, an abnormal development of the bones of the spine. He never has been able to walk and has used a wheelchair since the first grade.
“He is a typical 13-year-old boy except that he is in a wheelchair,” said Brayden's mom, Jill Flores. “And he wants the same thing as any other 13-year-old boy wants.”
Flores learned Brayden had spina bifida 18 weeks into her pregnancy. At 22 weeks, doctors closed his spine in utero in hopes Brayden would not need a shunt. Born at seven weeks, he needed a shunt 26 days later. He had extensive spinal fluid in the brain but did not develop any learning difficulties.
Brayden had several surgeries early on in life and faces another major one this year. He has lordosis, kyphosis and scoliosis, all spine curvature disorders that come from the spina bifida. Brayden will have spinal fusion instrumentation surgery to help straighten his spine. If it isn’t taken care of, scoliosis can begin to press on the lungs and affect other organs.
While needed, the surgery will take Brayden off the court and ice for a year.
“The unfortunate thing is this year he has taken off and done so well in both hockey and basketball, and now he will have to be out for a year,” Flores said.
Mom and son will continue to travel to games and tournaments to cheer on his teams and be part of the friendships and fun. Still, sitting on the sidelines won’t be easy for the teenager who has been obsessed with sports since hitting T-balls in the front yard at age 5.
“It is going to be hard on me, but we will go and support them and stuff,” he said.
Brayden played T-ball in a local abilities league as a child but became bored with it. In 2009, while in Columbus for a doctor’s appointment, Flores saw a pamphlet about the Ohio Blades, a hockey team for youth in wheelchairs.
In form-fitting sleds with hockey sticks half the size of regulation sticks, players glide across the ice, passing a puck and often checking each other with force before scoring.
“You have to be tough, or you get crushed,” said Brayden, who plays the wing position.
In 2010, Flores and Brayden found wheelchair basketball. At the time, there were only adult wheelchair leagues in Ohio, so they went to Fort Wayne.
Brayden, who also skis and is looking to try archery, is gone most every weekend at either hockey or basketball tournaments. Youth from around the country participate. Flores said it’s not just about having fun for the players. They play and practice hard and go out to win.
“From the time we get there, it is non-stop action,” she said. “They are awesome to watch. They flip over in their chairs. I am just very proud. To us, this is every bit as serious as high school ball. It is amazing the things that he has been able to do.”
Brayden says he is competitive and admits he doesn’t take losing all that well.
“I feel bad because we should have done better, and I know we can do better,” he said.
For mom, the real thrill is watching Brayden interact and build friendships with others his age in wheelchairs. The families hang out together before and after games. Flores has the support of other parents who understand her struggles and Brayden has made the kind of friends he doesn’t have at home.
“To me, it is almost like if he would get up and walk,” she said. “That is how awesome it is to see those guys hanging out and clowning and being brats and being 13 and causing problems. It is awesome.”
Brayden doesn’t say a lot about it, but his smile when talking about his team tells it all. His teammates are easy to talk to and understand him better than others.
He admits this before tearing off down an almost empty, after-school hallway. He pivots and maneuvers easily, just like earlier on the basketball court. Maybe someone is watching.