Local filmmakers chronicle struggles of Miami Heat Wheels

With his wheelchair parked alongside the kitchen table in his mother’s New Jersey apartment, Mario Moran reads aloud a news story about one young man goading another into shooting him.

The opening scene to Shaina Koren Allen and Michael Esposito’s film, “The Rebound,” sets up an arc of tribulation and triumph as it follows the Miami Heat Wheels, a talented yet underfunded wheelchair basketball team, and three of its players.

The subject of the newspaper story was a younger Moran, and the goading resulted in a gunshot wound and spinal cord injury that left him wheelchair-bound and looking for direction. He found it after moving to Miami and finding the Wheels.

Allen and Esposito, whose film will be shown Saturday night at Piedmont Virginia Community College as part of the Virginia Film Festival, found the subject of their hour-long documentary by accident.

Esposito, who moved to Miami for a corporate job after getting a business degree from James Madison University, met the cash-strapped team’s coach at a neighborhood dog park.

The team’s financial woes often dominated their conversations.

“It’s a struggle just to make sure that we get to the places that we need to get to,” head coach Parnes Cartwright says in the film. “It is always going to be about money. One of the things that we are working on within the National Wheelchair Basketball Association is finding the value in what we do.”

Esposito eventually volunteered Allen, who at the time was a freelance filmmaker, to shoot a promo video for the team in hopes of raising funds and awareness.

That turned into a four-and-a-half year saga that saw the couple, who now live in Earlysville, where they own and operate Shaina Koren Cinematography, follow the team to two national championship tournaments.

The film’s two other protagonists, Orlando Carrillo and Jeremie Thomas, have stories that are as harrowing as Moran’s. Thomas, a Florida native and aspiring rapper, was born three and a half months premature after his mother was in a car accident.

As a result, Thomas has spina bifida and cerebral palsy.

Carrillo was shot twice while trying to escape a kidnapping.

Carrillo and Moran have both since used wheelchair basketball as a springboard to athletic scholarships. Thomas is still recording music and playing for the Wheels.

Those stories helped turn the film from a promotional spot into a full-blown documentary, Allen said.

“It really started just because of this dog friendship and because I was just freelancing at the time,” she said. “But then the first guy I interviewed had gotten shot two years prior and had gotten a scholarship to college to play wheelchair basketball.”

Allen and Esposito said they hope the film will promote a more inclusive attitude in sports and lift some of the specter that adaptive athletics often labor under.

“For the community teams, you really see an age range, so you can really see people on the lower end, 17 or 18 years old, really see the opportunities through and go to college,” Allen said. “But you also have older people, who get injured later in life, people who get shot or veterans coming back, who think that this is the end of their life, and they find a sport like wheelchair basketball and they are able to be rehabbed and find purpose again.”

The Charlottesville Cardinals, a wheelchair basketball team run out of the Independent Resource Center, know the Wheels’ struggles all too well.

Entering their 36th season, the Cardinals are ranked 14th in their division, head coach Tom Vandever said.

They are not strangers to the national tournament, and in 2007 made it as far as the Final Four. But all that travel, and all those chairs, are expensive.

To keep the team traveling and playing, the Cardinals must raise between $25,000 and $35,000 a year, Vandever said. Donations help, but the money sometimes comes out of the players’ pockets.

Then there are the capital costs. A new basketball chair costs upwards of $3,000. They also go through wheel hubs, spokes, tires and the odd cracked frame.

“They take a lot of abuse; we joke that we have to travel with duct tape,” he said. “There is an element of NASCAR to this sport.”

Esposito and Allen hope their work can help close some of the gap that teams like the Miami Heat Wheels and Charlottesville Cardinals feel.

“With [Cartwright] complaining day in and day out about the team not having the resources to travel and to qualify just in order to play in the league, that was sort of the cue for me to say, ‘OK, how do we solve this problem,’” Esposito said.

“The Rebound” is showing at 7:00 p.m. Saturday in the Dickinson Theater on the campus of Piedmont Virginia Community College. Tickets are $13.