Originally created 07/25/99

Athletes make best of situation



Robert Conover isn't your typical head coach, and the Atlanta Rolling Hawks aren't a household name among basketball fans.

There isn't even a medal given to the champion of their division, partly because they are the only team in their division.

But the wheelchair team circled the courts at McDuffie Woods Community Center just the same Saturday in the spirit of the Georgia Games.

"They told me before that they had some teams to compete in the Games," Conover said. "But all of a sudden there weren't any teams, so they called us up and asked us to put on an exhibition. We definitely don't mind."

The Rolling Hawks, who are sponsored by the Atlanta Hawks, compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association along with other NBA-affiliated wheelchair teams. They also play at halftime of Hawks home games and put on exhibition games for charity.

While the Rolling Hawks cruise the court with smiles and finesse now, it wasn't long before that they suffered incidents that left permanent damage, forever altering their lives.

Conover, a high school standout in swimming, baseball and track, was left disabled at age 19 in an accident while serving in the Army.

"I always had this picture in my mind of old people being in wheelchairs, but that wasn't the case," said Conover, now 32. "I (was bad) in basketball in high school, but I got into a wheelchair and couldn't miss. That's what this is about; showing other disabled bodies that there is an avenue for them, too."

Conover spoke of the American Association of Adapted Sports Program as one channel in Georgia that many aren't aware of. The program fields a basketball league for high school- and grade-school-level disabled children across the Peach State.

Steve Pierce doesn't recall ever enjoying basketball, especially not when he had access to a golf course. But after he was shot three times through the window in his car in South Africa during a car-jacking, he knew he had to change his game, but not his attitude toward life.

"I didn't wait around," Pierce said. "Some people get down after incidents like that, and some like to stay active and move on with their life. The latter was my choice."

The Rolling Hawks are loaded with talent. Gavin Cloy recently signed a scholarship to play at the University of Illinois, one of 13 schools that give scholarships to disabled athletes. Laura Lawson, who used to play for the Orlando Ice wheelchair squad, is trying to start her own team.

"This is a good way to show the disabled public that there's a way for them to get out and play," Conover said. "It's great to do, and we just have fun. Some of us will probably even compete in the track events on Sunday. Now that'll be something to see."

Patrick Green covers sports in South Carolina for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (803) 648-1395.