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Gwinnett Heat wheelchair team chases state basketball title

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

DULUTH -- Martinez Johnson enjoyed the emotions over the weekend.

He reveled in his team's berth in the state championship basketball game Saturday night and all day Sunday.

But Monday, things changed.

"Once practice started Monday, I tried not to think too much about it," Johnson said. "It's just another game.

"It just means a little bit more."

Martinez is his team's leading scorer, but he is quick to point out he also leads the team in assists. Like any basketball player, Martinez knows he needs his teammates.

And Martinez is first a basketball player.

He happens to have cerebral palsy. He happens to play in Gwinnett's Adapted Sports program. His team happens to be the county schools' wheelchair team.

But the Gwinnett Heat earned their trip to today's state championship game against the Atlanta Wolfpack at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Like all state title contenders, they earned the big stage.

"I have never played in a gym that big," said Trintney Whitsel, a ninth-grader from Mountain View.

Whitsel helped found the Heat team last year and played through the junior varsity schedule. She has been in pageants and been a cheerleader, but this is her first athletically challenging endeavor.

"I have had to get a lot faster," she said. "It has made me tougher, I guess."

Martinez falls from his chair, often, five times per game. Brandon Bluford does more of the knocking down.

A Detroit native, Bluford moved to Gwinnett County last year and joined the team when he arrived. Bluford started playing wheelchair basketball at age 12, but because of his size and speed in the chair didn't crack the starting lineup until he joined the Heat.

"I am grateful to be on a team like this," the junior at South Gwinnett said. "We are all grateful to have this opportunity. Hard work pays off. Not only are we a team, we are a family. We all come back to this gym to play basketball."

"This gym" is the junior high facility at Obsorne Middle in Duluth. The walls are on top of the court and there is little seating. The floor is not wood and lines crisscross the floor for any and every sport.

Gwinnett Arena has a scorers' table, a press row, seating for thousands and a cavernous backdrop behind each basket. A big-time site for a big-time game.

"I am ecstatic," Bluford said "All of us are. We have played hard. This is what hard work gets you."

"I'll take about 20 shots and be good to go," Martinez said of the large gym.

There are eight players on the Heat, and all must contribute. Some score. Some play defense. Others set screens and rebound. Team members range from fifth-grader Giselle Zavala to Mill Creek senior Alex Reed.

Reed is one of two players, along with Brice Croxton, who play in a wheelchair not because of illness, but because of an accident. Croxton was injured skiing and Reed injured his spine in a car crash.

For Reed, a former football player for Mill Creek, the adapted sports program gives him a chance to stay active. He started with track last year and played handball in the fall.

"I wanted to do something," said Reed, who started exploring his options while still in the hospital. "(This game) is going to be cool. How many people can say they played in the Gwinnett Arena? Not too many."

Only people chasing state championships like the Heat. And winning was the focus of Thursday's practice. The eight players filled every corner of the Osborne gym, some shooting, others catching passes from coaches. Like any basketball practice, balls flew everywhere.

Coaches planned a post-practice meal to celebrate and finish preparations. One game remained and not an easy one. The Wolfpack won both meetings earlier in the year. But the margin dropped from 18 to 6 in the two games.

"We know what they do. I don't think they can beat us," a confident Bluford said. "We got it. I am looking forward to coming home with that trophy."