By Kim Constantinesco
When you hear “Miami Heat basketball,” you probably think Dwayne Wade or Chris Bosh. Or maybe images of slick-haired Pat Riley or former big man Alonzo Mourning pop into your head.
There’s another Miami Heat team in the sizzling town, and they’re just as dedicated as the NBA pros.
The Miami Heat Wheels is a cutthroat wheelchair basketball team in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWSB). And had Mario Moran, 30, not found them, his life would be dramatically different than it is today.
A New Jersey native, Moran was shot and paralyzed from the waist down over a decade ago. After the near-death experience, he moved to Miami on a whim to begin anew.
However, it wasn’t until he discovered wheelchair basketball that his life really took off.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Born and raised in Union City, New Jersey, Moran is proud to be from the Garden State. However, he fell in with the wrong crowd, spending some time in a juvenile detention facility as a teen.
“Growing up there was tough,” he said. “It was a journey of ups and downs. You had to hold your own and have tough skin. At the end of the day, it was a blessing to live in New Jersey.”
This from a man who was shot at 18 years old. It was prom night at the high school he graduated from in late May of 2005. Although he didn’t go to the dance, he was waiting to attend the after-party with some friends. That’s when a group of guys approached him on the street talking about the chain he was wearing.
At the time, he was steering his life in the right direction, ready to make a positive move. One thing led to another, however, and a gun was drawn on Moran, all because of his chain and sharp tongue. He quickly punched the gunman, but as the guy hit the ground, the trigger went off, and Moran was hit just below his left nipple.
Moran was quickly transported to a nearby hospital, but his injury was so severe that he had to be transferred to Newark’s University Hospital, a level one trauma center.
“There was a great surgeon who was supposed to travel to Spain that day,” Moran said. “He was the only surgeon in north Jersey who knew how to do this specific surgery to save my life.”
After two days in a coma, the one-time competitive baseball player discovered that he was paralyzed from the waist down, and would have to rely on others for help on a daily basis. For example, he was living on the third floor of a building that didn’t have an elevator.
“Every time I wanted to go out, I had to call my friends to bring me up and down the stairs,” he said.
Not knowing how to cope with his altered life, he dipped back in with the wrong crowd and got involved with dangerous activities.
“There’s a saying, ‘Tell me who you hang with, and we will tell you who you are.’ I was hanging with people who didn’t care about me. I was going to end up in prison or dead.”
A year after the shooting, Moran decided to leave his loved ones and move to Miami. His father owned a property there and he needed to immerse himself in a safer environment.
There, he met a man through the Miami Projects who asked, “Have you ever heard of wheelchair basketball?”
Although Moran had played a little basketball growing up, he wasn’t familiar with the wheelchair version. He went one weekend to check it out, and decided to work his way into the sport because it would be an opportunity for him to travel and to give back to the community.
“I loved it. I felt like I was able to dream again,” Moran said. “I had a reason to work hard, so I could reach some new goals.”
Moran took his training seriously, working his way up to three sessions a day. In the mornings, he’d hit the weight room. Midday, he would take to the hardwood for shooting drills. As the day was winding down, he would get his cardio in. He did that for four years straight, and it paid off. He made the Miami Heat Wheels, and became an important part of a team that would eventually go on to win the 2015 National Championship, and become the subject of the award-winning documentary, The Rebound.
Along with the benefits of competing, Moran gets to travel to places like Puerto Rico, Arizona, and Colorado. He also helps instruct youth at basketball camps, and does some motivational speaking.
“Getting shot was the best thing that ever happened to my life,” Moran said. “You have to move on and live life. You’ve got to push it to the limit. You have to ride until the wheels fall off. And once the wheels fall off, you keep riding the rims. I’m just grateful to have a second opportunity. I take time to just look at the sky. I take time to look at the ocean and listen to the wind.”
Basically, with his second chance, he takes time to go beyond just existing, in order to really live.