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Heaven on Wheels

At 17, Stan Kosloski was a passenger in a pickup truck that skidded on a patch of ice in Middletown, Conn., and struck a telephone pole. "I'm still trying to figure it out," says Kosloski, contemplating the infinitesimal odds of that narrow pole meeting his even narrower spine 42 years ago. Seated in a wheelchair in the kitchen of his house in Cromwell, Conn., Kosloski sips coffee and says, "This will sound strange to you, but the way my life has evolved, I think it was meant to be."

Because of the accident Kosloski found a career--and a calling--in the Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, from which he retired in June 2003. "You can still call a restaurant and ask about accessibility and hear them say, 'Oh, we're very accessible: We're right off the interstate,'" says Kosloski, a paraplegic, smiling sardonically.

Because of the accident Kosloski learned that the New Haven Rehabilitation Center was sponsoring a wheelchair basketball team, which he joined in 1967. And because he did that, Kosloski will be inducted--on Saturday in Phoenix--into the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Fame. Kosloski scored more than 15,000 career points, every one of them from the seat of his pants, in 33 seasons in the NWBA, a nonprofit recreational league that is every bit as competitive as the NBA despite (or more likely becauseof) that intrusive W.

This weekend in Phoenix the best teams in the NWBA will compete in two divisions at a national tournament that is held every spring. Not that you'd know about it, given the uneasiness of able-bodied people around wheelchairs. "It almost seems that disability confronts people with their own mortality," Kosloski says, "and they shy away from anything that reminds them of that."

The best wheelchair ballers, on the other hand, evoke not mortality but immortality. They are, in the elite Division I of the NWBA, world-class athletes such as Jeff Glasbrenner, a 32-year-old Wisconsin native built like an ancient Greek statue, right down to the missing right leg, which he lost in a farm accident at age eight. In last year's D-I final, Glasbrenner scored an unfathomable 63 points in the Denver Rolling Nuggets' 110-99 win over the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks. He broke the previous scoring record for a championship game, which had stood for 36 years, by 24 points.

Playing under NBA rules--four 12-minute quarters, a 24-second shot clock--Glasbrenner hit shots with his chair turned 180 degrees from the basket. He hit fadeaways, leaning back on one wheel. And he hit shots while falling out of his chair, which caused spectators to fall out of theirs. If Glasbrenner is heaven on wheels, there are others who are, on any given night, as good or better. "I'd say half the guys can consistently hit threes," says Kosloski. Try hitting one shot from a chair set 23 feet from the basket.

Kosloski won a gold medal at the '72 Paralympics in West Germany when 6'10" teammate Ed Owen drained a shot at the buzzer to beat Israel, whose powerful team throughout the '70s was a reminder of that era's bloodshed in the Middle East. War begets wheelchairs. It's no coincidence that wheelchair basketball was invented in the U.S. in 1946. It was the rare sport in which all the rookies were veterans.

Kosloski retired from playing five years ago with a common litany of wheelchair-related injuries: a wrecked rotator cuff, carpal-tunnel problems that required two surgeries, and an arthritis-like ailment in both hands called tenosynovitis. He still coaches his beloved Connecticut Spokebenders and works to open doors for the disabled, often literally. "It's not just the width of a door," Kosloski says of one of life's manifold daily calculations for the disabled, "but also the weightof a door."

Still, sitting in a wheelchair is--on its own--hardly heroic. And yet, says Kosloski, "people always want to place us on either end of the bell curve: We're [seen as] especially courageous and inspiring, or we're helpless objects of pity."

His life is not inspirational, insists Kosloski, and it's certainly not aspirational. "I wouldn't have chosen this to happen," he says, looking out onto his backyard garden, "but it did set me on a course that I might not have taken otherwise."

You see, in 1967, at that rehab center in New Haven, a physical therapy assistant named Carol Bianchi went, on a whim, to see the wheelchair team sponsored by her employer. She couldn't take her eyes off the 22-year-old player-coach. "I was in love, and we were married three years later," says Carol Kosloski.

The couple have a daughter, 30-year-old Jennifer, who took Stan to Fenway Park for the first time on his last birthday. "My life could have been a disaster, or it could have been great," says Kosloski. Young men and women, newly disabled, might benefit from knowing that his life has been--and continues to be--great. Kosloski doesn't want to hear this, but it happens to be true: He's a real roll model. ■

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In 33 seasons of wheelchair hoops, Stan Kosloski scored more than 15,000 points, every one from the seat of his pants.