The Phoenix players begin their warm-up on Day One of the tournament, snaking swiftly and gracefully across the court single-file, the only sound the whisper of their wheels on the parquet floor as they breeze past. There is a sense of release in their smiles; they are in a world designed for them now.
The three-court gym is in a newly inaugurated $20 million facility dedicated exclusively to wheelchair sports, and there are chairs everywhere, as well as referees, scorekeepers, coaches, support staff, and a smattering of fans who slide into the bleachers or perch on the edges of lawn chairs they've brought with them. The governor of Alabama will make an appearance on Sunday, and television news cameras drop in all weekend for obligatory feel-good sound bites to end their newscasts. Pennants hang from one end of the gym proclaiming Lakeshore's dominance in quad rugby, but the Heat players keep their eyes on their wheels.
Pregame preparation is a lengthy process. The players begin by transferring from their street chairs into custom-built rugby chairs that run nearly $2,000 each and will be virtually destroyed by the end of the season. Offensive chairs, like the "Rhino" model many players favor, resemble a gladiator's chariot, with armor-plated wings that are dented by frequent, brutal impacts. Bumpers on defensive chairs look like cowcatchers, designed to plow into the wheels of offensive players, thwarting their attempts to advance the ball up the court.
Because of all the heavy action, players tie down their ankles and knees with long strips of Velcro, luggage straps or duct tape, and bind their torsos to their chairs with weight belts. They also have their own one-woman pit crew, equipment manager Steph Pals, who responds to broken wheels and bent axles, rights toppled players, and handles other equipment time-outs in less than a minute.
The first game against the San Jose Quake is fast-paced, but clearly dominated by the Heat. They drive home three unanswered goals at the top of the first period. They allow the Quake to catch up some, narrowing their lead to two points at the half, but come back hard in the third period and win the game 46 to 35. The following game against a scrub team is all Phoenix, a blowout with a final score of 44 to 24.
The Heat arrives back at the hotel at the end of Day One victorious. Phoenix's coach, Mark Nermyr, a criminal defense attorney who broke his neck playing hockey in 1988, is all smiles. His players are tired and hungry but upbeat, as they head across the street to a barbecue joint. The only restaurant in pushing distance of a hotel full of tournament players, the place is a sea of wheelchairs. When the Heat players are finally shown to their table, a little girl watches wide-eyed through the slats of her chair. "Twenty-seven, 28, 29 . . ." she counts as they roll past.
Seated, the team is like a bunch of children, sparring and picking on each other, throwing food, hurling spitballs at the team at the neighboring table, and taking bets on how Coach Nermyr's bowl of chili will affect his digestion. The jokes range from bad to obscene, and are usually both.
Nermyr warns them that tomorrow will be a long and difficult day, opening with an early game against Lakeshore and closing with Texas. They head to the hotel bar for a while, sipping sodas and watching corpulent Alabamans disco dance. They talk about times at past tournaments when they would close down a bar like this.
"It would take us three hours to get to our room, the carpet was so thick," recalls Gilliland. "We didn't win much, but we had a lot of fun."
It's mid-afternoon on Saturday, and it's the final quarter in Phoenix's third game of the day, against the Texas Stampede.
The Heat lost the first game of the morning. Morale is low, tempers flaring. Although they always ride each other hard, the effect of criticisms and jabs fired in frustration, topped with a loss against Lakeshore, has nearly been their undoing. The second game of the day, against London, should have been an easy win, but the problems in the first game carried over. Play was flat and stilted, and the Heat's ultimate win seemed hollow.
Losing this game to Texas would put them out of the running for any meaningful place in Sunday's championship game. Worse than losing, which Phoenix does not do well, would be the humiliation of giving a win to Texas.
An early lead by Texas in the first quarter is whittled down swiftly, as the team finds its groove. Coming back to the sidelines to huddle during a time-out, Hogsett is all smiles, and in everyone's eyes is more than a glimmer of hope. Play is fluid, communication on the court open and easy. The energy is palpable.