ST. PETERSBURG — When Robbie Gordon was born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that would leave him unable to walk, his father never imagined sports would be in his future.
Eighteen years later, and it’s just the opposite. Gordon, a high school senior, plays point guard for a team in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, a level equivalent to the NBA. He is also an alternate on the U.S. men’s Paralympic basketball team, which is headed to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Though it’s a common sport internationally, wheelchair basketball is not as popular in the United States. But if Gordon has anything to do with it, that will change, even if it’s only locally. Step one: a wheelchair basketball game between two nationally competitive teams at the Wildwood Recreation Center, 1000 28th St. S.
The game, at 10 a.m. Saturday, features the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs against the Orlando Magic Wheels, Gordon’s team. Tickets cost $3 and benefit Therapeutic Sports Ministry, an initiative through Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church to empower disabled athletes.
Though St. Petersburg used to have a Paralympic wheelchair basketball program, it was discontinued years ago. Seeing an opportunity to fill the void, the Therapeutic Sports Ministry stepped in.
The program coordinator, who goes by Coach Cece, said the ministry seeks to establish a tradition of wheelchair basketball in St. Petersburg and throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Being disabled “does not deteriorate your ability to play or be involved in any type of sport,” said the coach, who is a former collegiate basketball player.
She wants the ministry to function as a force and service for athletes with disabilities, providing them support and encouragement. As she tells Gordon, a wheelchair “may be your transportation, but it does not identify who you are.”
Though he has faced his share of adversity, along with about 10 surgeries, Gordon thinks his disability is “not a big deal anymore.”
“I’m not living with it; it’s living with me,” he said.
When Gordon’s parents moved to their south St. Petersburg home more than 10 years ago, they had trouble finding activities for their son. Then, at 11, he picked up basketball.
Without a local youth wheelchair team, he practiced with neighborhood friends. At 15, he began playing with the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs, where, as the team’s youngest player, he acquired the nickname “Kidd.” After moving up the ranks, Gordon started playing for the Magic Wheels, who also practice in Tampa.
“To see what he can do in that chair is amazing,” said Gordon’s father, Robert. “I tell him often that he’s my hero.”
Nine state colleges in the country offer athletic scholarships for wheelchair basketball players. Gordon, who attended Gibbs High School and now is home-schooled, has offers from each of them. He’ll be committing next month, probably to his top choice, the University of Texas at Arlington. While playing basketball, he wants to study business with the goal of becoming an entrepreneur.
Gordon said the scholarship opportunities make him feel wanted and appreciated — something he’s not used to experiencing.