Rogue Valley Scorpions inspire, compete
Keith Avant had his feet crushed while working with the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Marine. Josh Brewer was nearly killed by a train as a child in Ethiopia.
The odds were stacked against both of them, but each found a way back up.
And, eventually, they found their way into wheelchair basketball.
The men are two of the members of the Rogue Valley Scorpions, a group of wheelchair basketball players who came together to form a team in Medford.
The nonprofit Scorpions, which Avant created, play by the same rules as any other basketball team, with one exception: Players can hold the ball, but they have to dribble it every two times they touch the wheel.
Rogue Valley (14-2) is ranked fifth in the 20-team National Wheelchair Basketball Association Championship Division. Most of the Scorpions moved to the Rogue Valley from other states.
Rogue Valley will play its first-ever home game against the Sacramento Rollin Kings on Saturday at Central Medford High. The contest begins at 7 p.m. A company called Competitive Edge Sports will host the event.
The eighth-ranked Kings are led by Joe Chambers, who played for the United States in the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing.
The cost is $10 general admission and $5 for children 10 and under. The money will pay for the team’s trip to the national tournament April 7-10 in Louisville, Ky. Squads ranked in the top 16 are invited, and the tournament is single elimination.
Saturday night will feature entertainment by DJ Spark, who has worked as a disc jockey with artists including T-Pain, Omarion and Sean Paul.
“It’s getting a lot bigger than we thought,” Avant says. “We have seating capacity for 2,000.”
Rogue Valley has played in invitationals and tournaments in Arizona, California and Nevada. The team, which is owned and coached by Jeff Roberson, practices at Rogue Valley YMCA.
“I’ve coached AAU basketball the last eight years,” Roberson says. “When I was approached to start an adaptive sports program, it changed my life. I jumped at the chance and haven’t looked back. I no longer see disabilities. I only see their abilities. The guys are truly some of the best athletes I’ve ever been around.”
World War II veterans created wheelchair basketball in 1946. They played in Veterans Administration hospitals in California and Massachusetts, as well as at the Corona Naval Station in California, where many were being treated for various degrees of paralysis.
Avant says he fell in love with the sport after being involved in an accident. The Medford resident was working as a Marine in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1997 when an explosion sent him sliding down a mountainside. Both of his feet were crushed.
Avant has also had two brain surgeries, losing vision and hearing on his right side. A scan revealed growth on his brain stem the size of a lemon.
"I couldn't walk, I couldn't talk, I was on a feeding tube," Avant recalls. "All I could do was cry."
It was a shock to the system for Avant, who was already 6-foot-6 by the time he was in the seventh grade in northern California.
"The physical pain is one of the biggest battles, but when you are not born with a disability, the mental aspect is the hardest thing to deal with," he says. "To put on a smile that isn't real, it's tough. You go from feeling invincible to that."
The 39-year-old Avant persevered through physical rehabilitation and picked up wheelchair basketball while attending a veterans’ sports camp at the University of Arizona.
Avant later played for the university, claiming third at nationals. He and teammate Ryan Prioleau were connected with Roberson, and the seeds of the Scorpions franchise were planted.
Avant says he’d like for Saturday’s game to raise awareness of activities for disabled youth.
“There are a lot of disabled youth here and there isn’t a great awareness of adaptive sports,” says Avant, who has coached several children's teams in the area. “We need to change that.”
Brewer, like Avant, also overcame significant trauma. The triple amputee was run over by a train while living in the streets of Ethiopia.
“Me and my friends used to use the trains as a way of getting around to different towns,” says the 20-year-old Medford resident, who was adopted as a teenager by a family in Washington. “It was a way of survival. I ended up being a little too slow on one of those train rides. I was running to catch up with a train. When I was holding onto a ladder next to the cart, I was sucked under. “
Brewer spent months in a hospital after losing both legs from below the knees and his right arm from below the elbow.
Teresa Skinner, executive director of ParaSport Spokane, made Brewer aware of wheelchair basketball.
Brewer, who is also a student at Rogue Community College, calls the accident a blessing in disguise.
“After all those things, it’s been a blessing,” he says. “I think I wouldn’t have lived a long life in Ethiopia. Since I was adopted into the U.S., my opportunities are limitless.”
Rogue Valley has three big goals, Roberson says: provide disabled youth with athletic opportunities, win a national title and work toward making a league where basketball players in wheelchairs can play professionally in the United States.
Wheelchair basketball leagues where players are paid exist in other countries but not in the U.S., Roberson says. He and Avant believe they can create a new association by 2017.
“Everybody is on board,” Avant says. “If there is any reluctance it is just that it has never been done here in the U.S.”
Adds Roberson: “These guys want to be on the ground floor of that. It’s not a secret that this needs to happen in the U.S. Pro guys want to come home.”
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email
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