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World's Best Wheelchair Basketball Comes To Lake Norman

Members of the US (in red) and Canadian teams scramble for position.

Members of the US (red) and Canadian teams scramble for position. Click photo to view more images of the game. Starting Wednesday evening, some of the best wheelchair basketball teams in the world will compete in the Lake Norman area. Men's and women's national teams have come from as far as Japan and Australia to play in the International Tournament of Champions. All of the teams are expected to be in the 2012 Paralympics in London. Wheelchair basketball is intense. Even at a practice game between the U.S. and Canadian women's teams earlier this week, the players barked orders, collided chairs and wheeled non-stop throughout the court. "It's a rough sport," said Becca Murray, the starting point guard for the American team. "People are laid out all the time." You can't intentionally lay out anyone, but it happens. There are collisions as five players on each team battle for position, cut off paths and set picks in their wheelchairs. Natalie Schneider ices her wrist after the game. Murray and the American squad won gold medals at the 2008 Paralympics. Natalie Schneider is another player from the team. "People hear about wheelchair basketball, they're like, 'Oh that's nice. The people pushing around in their little wheelchairs, good for them.' But this is intense competition," Schneider said. "These are elite athletes, and they're out here pushing hard. The game also has a fast-paced beauty to it. Schneider compared it to a well-choreographed dance. "Because when we're bringing the ball down on offense we go out wide, so we can cross and give each other those good passing angles," Schneider said. The result is intricate offensive plays as players criss-cross from baseline to baseline. Canadian player Tara Feser said it's kind of like watching a hockey team move together. "I guess you can put it as you're on skates on the court," Feser said. "You have to move with the rest of the players on the court. You're weaving like you would on an ice rink, I guess. You're weaving in and out, and it's more flow that way." There's a range of disabilities on the court. Some can walk but can't run or jump because of disease or injury. Others are paralyzed to different degrees. To ensure fairness, there's a point system that regulates the mix of disabilities in each lineup. For the most part, it's hard to tell those differences on the court. The players can't push their wheels more than twice without dribbling the ball, so there's constant passing. U.S. head coach David Kiley emphasizes that during timeouts. U.S. head coach David Kiley "Soon as the ball gets handed back to you, Becca, head up, let's try to make this long pass right away," Kiley instructed. Coach Kiley isn't far from home. The game is at Lake Norman High School in Mooresville, where Kiley lives. He said five of the top six women's teams in the world are competing this week, and the top men's teams are here too, including Australia, Germany, Japan and Great Britain. He said there's never been a tournament like this in North Carolina or in many other places in the U.S. "We had some real huge challenges to transport 200-plus wheelchair athletes to multiple sights for training, for competition, for hotel, for airport, and it was monumental," Kiley said. It doesn't hurt that the president of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association lives in Charlotte. Dick Bryant has been busy checking in on all the teams. He dropped by the Country Inn and Suites in Huntersville the other night to make sure the Japanese men's and women's teams were enjoying their dinner. He tried to land the tournament in Charlotte, but he couldn't get the gym space. Then he got in touch with the group Visit Lake Norman and the area's mayors. "I had five gyms from Huntersville Parks and Rec and Cornelius Parks and Rec in about five days," Bryant said. Bryant said the support from the community has been fantastic, and he wants to make the tournament an annual event. Visit Lake Norman estimates more than 50 volunteers have signed up to help, from driving athletes to running scoreboards. The tournament runs Wednesday through Saturday. Games are at Lake Norman Charter Middle and High Schools in Huntersville, Bailey Middle School in Cornelius, and Lake Norman High School in Mooresville. View game schedule.