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Sunday, January 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Commanding the court: Wheels no barrier to players' dreams

Seattle Times staff reporter

She woke up one morning almost four years ago with pains that felt like knives were stabbing through her legs. Then Eve Hampton collapsed on her living-room floor, not realizing until later that she had just taken the last steps she would ever take.

The 16-year-old Mercer Island girl had contracted transverse myelitis, a disease that inflamed her spine and crippled her from the waist down.

She decided then that there were times in life when unfathomable things may happen, and one must decide whether to get depressed or to go on living.

So a week after being released from the hospital, Hampton, in her wheelchair, showed up on a hardwood court, playing basketball for the first time ever.

Yesterday, she was among 75 wheelchair players who showed off their skills in a two-day tournament at Meany Middle School on Capitol Hill. The nine teams came from Western Washington, Spokane, San Diego and San Francisco.

The coed teams, a youth division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, are separated into three skill levels, and the players — ages 7 to 21 — play up to three games a day. The tournament is one of five nationwide that many disabled teens in Northwest Wheelchair Sports play in each year.

Hampton plays every weekend with dozens of local teens who are paraplegics and quadriplegics because of spinal-cord or head injuries, neurological disease or car accidents.

They gather at local community centers and public-school gyms to scrimmage and practice under the guidance of Northwest Wheelchair Sports.

For many, it's really not about basketball, but an affirmation that life goes on, that they can do anything. These are not so much teams as support groups, said Tami English, spokeswoman for the nonprofit group.

"They support each other and even go to each other's prom," she said. "They have each other to realize (that being disabled) is not scary."

But the tournament is rougher than any pickup game. Players run picks and screens, jamming each other's wheelchairs so hard that some fall, some flip over. They don't help each other up.

There's no sympathy here. Hampton, the only girl on the Jr. Sonics varsity team, discovered that when she signed up three years ago.

"The guys — they don't cut a lot of slack. They are physical," said the Mercer Island high-school junior.

And that's the way she likes it — to not stand out or be reminded that she is different. She gets enough of that off the court.

"When they play ball, it's not like they are disabled," she said. "When they are out there on the courts, they all seem like any other kids."

A soccer fanatic, Hampton played her last soccer game on May 17, 2000. The next day, for some reason that still puzzles her family, the virus ravaged her spinal cord.

Her parents were devastated. But Hampton shrugged and said, "I can either sit and be sad or find out what I can do and do it."

So she participates in track and speaks at local elementary schools about being disabled, about resiliency and about never giving up.

"I don't know if I would have that attitude if it was me, but I am glad she does," said her father, Brad Hampton.

In her team's 56-15 rout of the St. Luke's team from Spokane, Hampton didn't score. Defense is her strength, and, besides, what she loves most about these games is meeting new people and hearing about their achievements. People like Steven Toyoji, 18, of Redmond.

Toyoji, who suffered from the same disease as Hampton when he was 8 months old, is the homecoming king at Redmond High. He was also president of his class at Redmond Junior High and is one of the best young wheelchair athletes in Western Washington.

He has been invited to compete in the 400-, 800- and 5,000-meter events in a national track competition in Atlanta to qualify for the Paralympics in Athens, Greece, next fall.

In an early game yesterday, he sped by three defenders for an easy layup. Afterward, he buried his face in his Japanese and advanced-placement physics textbooks to study for exams before his next game.

Being disabled doesn't mean that the competition ends or that life is over, he said, echoing a point that many of his peers made.

"People might look at me and say, 'He is in a wheelchair.' Yeah, it's unfortunate that I am ... but I am not different from other kids. I can do anything I want," he said.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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