March may be Women’s History Month, but BlazeSports America has been making women’s history all winter.
The noble nonprofit organization, which came into existence following the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games and has since emerged as a leader in the field of adaptive sports, has helped organize Georgia’s first-ever women’s wheelchair basketball team—the BlazeSports Lady Ballers, powered by the Atlanta Hawks.
For a decade now, the Hawks and BlazeSports have formed a close partnership, highlighted by the Hawks Foundation’s unwavering support of BlazeSports America’s Jr. Hawks Wheelchair program, now one of the Southeast’s most impactful youth wheelchair basketball programs.
Since 2013, the Hawks have provided funding for legions of athletes, aged seven to 18 years old, to participate in this seven-month program, which is associated with the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
However, as some of those female participants started aging out of this junior co-ed program and needed to join an all-women’s league, their options were limited to one of only two Southeast women’s wheelchair teams, the closer of which was in Charlotte.
Participating in adaptive sports often means hours-long car rides to out-of-the-way facilities in fairly remote outposts, but this situation was unfortunate—and, ultimately, avoidable—given the solid basketball infrastructure already in place in Atlanta.
“Being a female in the industry, it bothered me quite frankly,” said Dawn Churi, executive director of BlazeSports. “It was really important to me to provide women with an opportunity to participate. For our women to have to drive three, four, or five hours to play on a female-only team, it was just something that was in our hearts at BlazeSports for a while. We felt that it was an opportunity that we really needed to address.”
It was really important to me to provide women with an opportunity to participate. For our women to have to drive three, four, or five hours to play on a female-only team, it was just something that was in our hearts at BlazeSports for a while. We felt that it was an opportunity that we really needed to address.
In her initial planning stages, Churi solicited the Hawks for some guidance and perhaps a couple references to fill out the staff. But, to her pleasant surprise, the Hawks wanted to come together, offering to provide funding for jerseys, travel stipends, practice facilities, and most significantly, specialized basketball wheelchairs that cost upwards of $3,000. And so, with a cross-generational roster of players from ages 16 to 65 years old, some of whom had never played wheelchair hoops, the BlazeSports Lady Ballers embarked on their inaugural campaign…even though their two Southeast competitors, in Charlotte and Birmingham, had already been in action for weeks.
“It’s a building year for us,” acknowledged Churi. “We got this up really quickly. This year, the goal was to build the team, get it started, and really make history as the only team in Georgia.”
The significance of the Georgia factor can’t be overstated. This past February, BlazeSports America hosted the seventh annual “Big Peach Slam Jam Wheelchair Basketball Tournament,” a marvelous mid-winter event, presented by the Hawks and held at the LakePoint Sports venue that hosts 35 teams across America. This year’s edition showcased the first-ever female competition and, thanks to the BlazeSports Lady Ballers—and Hawks organization—Atlanta was well represented.
“The reason we’re able to do these things is our ownership, Tony Ressler, Jami Gertz, Grant Hill,” said Jon Babul, the Hawks’ vice president of community impact and basketball programs, who has been heavily invested in the Jr. Hawks Wheelchair Basketball program through the years. “They really believe that we’re a community asset. To do these things, it takes resources and funding. We couldn’t do it without our ownership and the vision of our CEO, Steve Koonin. Without that, this stuff doesn’t happen.”
In addition to the cited members of the Hawks brass, Dominique Wilkins, the longtime face of the franchise, who was dubbed “The Human Highlight Film” during his glory days, has been a particularly active spokesperson for BlazeSports.
The concept of adaptive sports takes on special meaning for Wilkins, whose daughter, JoJo, lives with spina bifida…and has grown to love wheelchair basketball.
“The most influential Atlanta Hawk who has been involved is Dominique Wilkins,” added Babul.
For the entirety of this season, the BlazeSports Lady Ballers, coached by Mara Cunningham, manager of community basketball programs for the Hawks, and a former player at Vanderbilt University, have gone up against the same two opponents in Charlotte and Birmingham, both of which have Paralympians on their teams. However, next month at Nationals, coincidentally held in Birmingham, that all changes when 13 other all-female teams join the Southeast trio at the season-closing tournament.
Nationals will serve as a fitting culmination of the BlazeSports Lady Ballers’ historic first season, one that involved a full slate of weekly practices and regional competition, along with a spirited scrimmage during halftime of a Hawks game, that will hopefully spark interest among potential participants, not just in the Southeast, but throughout the entire country.
“A female that’s in a wheelchair, that wants to play basketball, she now has this opportunity,” said Babul. “I see momentum.”
- David Ostrowsky
- Women’s History Month
- BlazeSports America
- Atlanta Paralympic Games
- BlazeSports Lady Ballers
- Atlanta Hawks
- Jr. Hawks Wheelchair program
- wheelchair basketball
- National Wheelchair Basketball Association
- Dawn Churi
- Big Peach Slam Jam Wheelchair Basketball Tournament
- LakePoint Sports
- Tony Ressler
- Jami Gertz
- Grant Hill
- Jon Babul
- steve koonin
- Dominique Wilkins
- spina bifida
- Mara Cunningham
- Vanderbilt University