Roseann Kirlin admits she wasn’t familiar with wheelchair basketball when she and her husband Joe took their daughter Katie to her first tournament in 1988.
That event ended up being a monumental occasion — for Katie, who had been paralyzed due to a cancerous tumor in her spinal cord, for her parents, and for children living with physical mobility challenges all over Philadelphia. It got the ball rolling for the eventual launch of the city’s coed wheelchair basketball team.
“Some kids don’t travel until they start playing wheelchair sports,” Kirlin told Billy Penn. “And then they realize they can travel. They can be a part of teams. So it’s just more than a game.”
In memory of their daughter, Kirlin and her husband have funded the program for the past 25 years. Run by Philly’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the team is now called Katie’s Komets. The 25th annual Katie Kirlin Junior Wheelchair Basketball Tournament takes place this weekend, Jan. 21 and 22.
It’s expected to feature more than 100 athletes coming from all over the East Coast. Previous editions have included teams from as far away as Michigan, Georgia, and Florida.
Celeste Russo joined the Komets in 2021, when she was 12 years old. Now in her first year of high school, she’s adamant basketball will play an important role in her future.
“Once I got on a team and people thought, ‘She has potential to play,’ I really thought it’s going to be something I do for college,” Russo said.
After starting on the prep team for players 13 or younger, Russo now plays varsity, and it’s pretty challenging.
“On the varsity team, there’s a big difference in how you play because there are so many things you have to learn,” she said, citing the more complicated defenses she encounters on the varsity level. “It’s more high speed than prep.”
Russo is looking forward to showcasing her talents in the Kirlin tournament, where a top-two finish would send the Komets to the national finals in Wichita, Kansas. Not that Russo is making any guarantees.
“We don’t win much, but we have a tough team,” she said about the group that sometimes practices twice a week. “I would describe us as underdogs. I don’t think anyone has heard of the Komets.”
Missing a home for practice isn’t stopping anyone
Before Parks & Rec program director Stu Greenburg changed the team name to honor the support it received from the Katie Kirlin Fund, the Komets were originally known as the Carousel House Rolling Thunder.
The Carousel House, a Parkside rec center for people with disabilities, was shut down in 2021. City officials cited repairs too intensive for renovations to make sense; a replacement facility is on the docket to be constructed. In the meantime, the Komets have lost their regular home.
The group now practices in two different places: at the Pelbano Gymnasium in Northeast Philadelphia on Tuesdays, and the Riverwinds Community Center in West Deptford, N.J., on Saturdays.
“These athletes just can’t go to a rec center in the city and find other disabled athletes to play with,” Roseann Kirlin said. “The Carousel House was the perfect place to do this.”
Despite the obstacles the Komets face in being able to develop on-court chemistry, varsity player Russo is bullish on the team’s potential.
“We have people who are going to be Paralympians one day. I think, if we keep practicing, we’re going to win more,” she said.
Russo isn’t exaggerating when she proclaims team members go far. Former Komet Joe Rafter, plays for Auburn University’s wheelchair basketball team on scholarship, and was named to the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team last year. At least 15 other Komets have obtained college scholarships, according to Kirlin.
With all the challenges, what would make a good tournament for the Komets this weekend?
“It would be nice to win and go to Nationals because it’s a huge deal,” Russo said. However, she added, “I just want to improve in little small things. That’s something that would make me feel good about the tournament.”
For Kirlin, success is seeing players establish bonds. “It’s not just the sport part of the wheelchair basketball,” she said. “It’s the camaraderie, and meeting other kids.”