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An All-Star Who's All Heart
By Deirdre Burns
April 21, 2002
TALK TO EDY LOPEZ once, and you quickly realize he understands that life is hardly over for him. Even though the 40-year-old Bronx resident sustained a life- changing leg injury two decades ago, it doesn't mean he has slowed down or given up on living a fulfilling athletic life.
Instead, Lopez, a member of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association Nets wheelchair basketball team, decided to explore options he never would have tried.
"At first, I didn't want to leave the house [after the accident]," said Lopez, who also works for the Queens-based EPVA as the office manager/mailroom supervisor. "But then I realized that life can and does go on."
Lopez participated in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Regional Tournament March 8-10 in Orlando and the Eastern Wheelchair Basketball Conference 2001-02 All-Star game on April 13. The 13-time all-star, who averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per game this season, said these experiences afforded him with several opportunities that most people tend to look past.
During his stint in the Navy as an air traffic controller, the then 19-year- old Lopez was blown off a ship's flight deck by the exhaust of a jet during takeoff, and fell onto the catwalk below. He landed on his knees and broke his right kneecap. Six weeks later, when the injury wasn't healing properly, it was discovered that a cancerous tumor had developed, and the leg was removed just above the knee. "It really changed my life," he said.
The 6-1, 210-pound Lopez decided to get back into more of an athletic life when he joined the Bulova Watchmakers, another EPVA team, in 1989. He said it was all about looking at things in a more positive light. Instead of staying confined to his wheelchair, Lopez chose to make the most of the situation.
"I plan on using the half glass of water I have left," said Lopez, who added that he wished he would have realized the importance of staying involved in athletics about 10 years sooner.
In wheelchair basketball, all five players on the court must be in wheelchairs at all times. Each player is given a classification ranging from one to three, with class three having the most mobility. The total classification points of the five players on the court cannot exceed 12 points at any given time; Lopez's classification is three.
John Hamre, coach of the EPVA Nets, said Lopez is the type of athlete a coach can only hope for. "Edy's one of those players who has incredible drive," Hamre said. "His drive has taken to the sport just like anything else. He understands that if you work hard at something, you're going to be a better player."
He added that Lopez's presence has encouraged 18-year-old teammate Paul Ward, who is afflicted with spina bifida, to earn a full basketball scholarship to the University of Illinois to play on its wheelchair team this fall. "The younger guys really look up to him," Hamre said. "We all do."
Throughout his 13-year career, Lopez has been named an All-Star MVP nine times. He earned a trip to the tryouts for Team USA for the 1996 summer Paralympics in Barcelona. "I didn't make it to Barcelona, but just the experience was well worth the effort." He also was voted MVP while he was representing the EPVA Knicks, along with teammate Patrick Donaghey, in the 1999 all-star game.
But the most memorable trip for Lopez was his homecoming in his native Puerto Rico in 1990 during his first season in the EPVA.
"It was absolutely amazing," he said. "It was so emotional because they had a welcome home parade, and people lined the streets. It was really moving."
In addition to playing wheelchair basketball, Lopez also plays wheelchair softball and, most recently, wheelchair tennis.
Other sports sponsored by the EPVA include quad rugby (a cross between wheelchair basketball, ice hockey and soccer), ice hockey, bowling, hang-gliding and numerous field sports. EPVA also offers an athletic component to get wheelchair-bound youngsters involved in sports. The EPVA will co-host The Jana Hunsaker Memorial Wheelchair Tennis Tournament at the National Tennis Center June 6-9.
For more information about the EPVA and its various athletic programs, call the office at 718-803-3782, ext. 271, or visit www.epva.org.