Celebrity Classic Wheelchair Basketball Game

Zach Thomann, Assistant Sports Editor

 

Jimmy Joseph races across the gym floor in the Utica College Clark athletic center. He rides his chair effortlessly as he dribbles a basketball to the side. Joseph is warming up for the Sitrin Celebrity Classic. He has been playing every year since Sitrin created the event 15 years ago.

Sitrin is a charity that supports people who have lost the ability to walk and the wheelchair basketball game is one of the top events in the area to raise awareness.

Joseph is a two-time Paralympic Curler and recently competed in the 2014 Paralympic games in Sochi. He doesn’t play basketball often, but the event is too important to pass up.

“It’s fabulous to see the community come out and support,” Joseph said. “You can’t ask for more.”

The event is called the “Celebrity” wheelchair game because many local public figures play against the Sitrin basketball team. These celebrities include Senator Joseph Griffo, Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri and Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente.

Their presence is known, but what many fans come to see are the senior Syracuse basketball players. The game usually attracts Syracuse alumni, and this year Dajuan Coleman, Tyler Roberson, and John Gillon came to play.

This isn’t the first time Coleman was in a wheelchair and he has actually played basketball in one before. He was honored to play in the game.

“A couple players reached out to me from previous years,” Coleman said. “They said that I should do it.

Coleman and his teammates were put into the starting lineup alongside Olympic bronze medalist in the luge, Erin Hamlin. She was the first American to medal in the event and grew up 20 minutes north of Utica, in the small town of Remsen.

Hamlin has played in the event six years now and was excited to compete against other Olympians.

“This is an awesome program,” Hamlin said. “It’s important to raise awareness and get people introduced to the program.”

Hamlin failed to score in the game despite a breakaway layup opportunity. Her attempt came up short and then fell backwards, which broke the wheelchair. Kiss FM radio host S-Dot ran out with a new chair and as he took the broken one, the wheel fell off. The crowd enjoyed what happened and it signified what the event is all about: to have fun.

Another veteran in the event is Kristen Copeland. This is her fifth year playing, and she was playing with extra motivation.

“When Sitrin brought a third Syracuse player I got bumped from the starting five,” Copeland said. “I’m being a good sport about it though.”

Copeland appreciates what the athletes do and how hard it is to navigate in a wheelchair. She scored just two points in her wheelchair basketball career before the game, but was determined to score again. Toward the end of the game, Copeland got her chance with a little help from players of both teams. After six tries, she put one through the net. Kiss FM radio host “Big Poppa,” cheered and credited “everyone” with the assist.

Another notable moment was when Sitrin Star Elizabeth Ford ran into Utica men’s hockey coach Gary Heenan. The fans joked that a girl checked the hockey coach.

Copeland emphasized how much better the Sitrin Stars are then the celebrities, and it showed during the game. The Sitrin Stars scored the first 19 points and hit five three-point shots throughout the game. They would eventually take the win 61-44, with the Mayor Palmieri shooting a three with Gillon calling for the ball.

The celebrities may have lost, but the fans were still happy. Joseph and his teammates were praised with every made shot and truly raised awareness to a good cause.

“They call us the celebrities,” Joseph said.

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