The National Wheelchair Basketball Association holds its 64th annual national championships in Louisville, Kentucky this weekend.
Yeah, THAT Louisville, Kentucky—home of the Kentucky Derby, Louisville Slugger and the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball champion University of Louisville Cardinals.
When I received the press release from the Louisville Sports Commission that over 1,000 athletes on 85 teams were coming to the biggest wheelchair basketball tournament ever, my curiosity got the better of me. I’ve seen nearly every sport imaginable but I had never watched an actual wheelchair basketball game.
Sure, I’ve seen video clips of celebrity games and brief bits of actual games here and there, but I had no idea what an actual game looked like. Now was my chance, so I headed across the river to see the sport for myself.
I have to admit that this was one sport about which my store of sports knowledge was a total vacuum. As I pulled into the parking lot at the Hoops facility in Louisville to check out some of the Junior action, I had no idea what to expect.
I noticed a man pushing his wheelchair down the sidewalk with another in tow, completely loaded down with basketballs. He seemed to be coming from the back of the parking lot, and the most absurd question flashed in my mind: “who gets to use the handicap parking?”
Its absurd, you see, because athletes in adaptive sports only want to be treated just like any able-bodied athlete.
One parent I talked to told me that this is the biggest obstacle faced by these athletes. People tend to see them as just a curiosity and their sport as just a fun-time game, something to keep those poor disabled souls busy, bless their hearts.
Ho-ho, not so! These folks take their basketball Very Seriously.
I was there to see the Junior Division-Varisty semifinals, a one-seed/four-seed matchup between top-seeded TIRR Hotwheels and the Windy City Warriors.
Not even two minutes into the game, the TIRR center reached high for a rebound, lunging so hard after the ball that he pulled his wheelchair off the ground and crashed to the floor.
I instinctively started to stand up to help the sprawled out athlete in front of me when I noticed no one else moving. I checked myself before doing something stupid and watched in amazement as the young man flipped himself over and pushed himself upright in two easy movements.
Turns out that no one helps up another athlete unless they are hurt. It’s an unwritten rule, one parent told me, and one they are very proud of.
The semifinal is very physical and fast. The Hotwheels pick up full court and keep the pressure on all the way down the court. The Warriors, however, pick up their defense at the top of the arc by forming their chairs into a line, literally blocking their opponent and forcing them to initially go wide to start their offense where the Warriors pick up man-to-man.
Some of the players are extremely fast and able to stop nearly on a dime.
Kyle Gribble, the leading scorer for the Warriors, pulled a WOW out of me in the first half when he split a double team near midcourt at full speed, rode a defender’s challenge by leaning into him on one wheel and then pulled a slick and quick s-curve before pump-faking and coming back underneath with a sweet finger roll—still moving at full speed.
MJ would have been proud of the young athlete wearing his number.
The ball handlers have this nifty little move where they spin one wheel and change directions faster than any standing point guard could without tearing an ACL. These teams were too good to fall for spin moves, however, and weak side help was always present.
And if you want to know just how seriously these athletes take their basketball, every kid on the court who could was wearing expensive basketball shoes.
Like any competitive youth sport, the parents can be as entertaining as the players. The referees were calling a physical game, letting the athletes play, which favored the bigger Hotwheeler team.
This was met with a healthy dose of “what was that, ref?” and “would you open your eyes!” And those were the nice things they said. One Windy City parent left midway through the first half and when he returned at halftime he explained that he just couldn’t stand to see a game called like that.
My first thought was that he was concerned for his son’s safety. Nope. He was just ticked off that the refs were letting the top seed get away with playing a physical game that clearly favored their size advantage.
John Ruiz, father of the Warrior’s Jonathan Ruiz, told me that they attend 6-10 tournaments a year and that his son would be playing for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater next year, a team that has won seven of the last 11 collegiate championships. Maybe he would one day play in a European pro league.
Chairs can cost more than $6,000 and feature all of the same exotic lightweight materials you see on Tour de France bikes. Between the cost of travelling and equipment costs, a parent has to make a big commitment for their kids to play at the highest levels.
Another parent told me that all their kids need is an opportunity, that they “eat, breath, sleep and poop basketball” if given the chance to play.
Much like the effect of Title IX on women’s participation in sport, the more opportunities there are for these athletes, the more athletes there will be.
Not So Different
Wheelchair basketball rules are not that much different than for stand-up basketball.
Before the game I ran into Chris Rathje, an assistant coach for the Warriors. He was kind enough to explain some of the differences between wheelchair and “standing” basketball.
The court has the same lane and 3-point arc and the basket is still 10-feet high.
They played with a 35-second shot clock, a player couldn’t stay in the lane for more than three seconds and a team had ten seconds to get the ball over half court.
A pick must be stationary and the principle of verticality applies. If a defensive player is set with a stationary chair he or she can take a charge.
The big men still dominate inside and the quick little guards still dominate on the outside. There is plenty of passing and good hands are essential.
The athletes are in phenomenal physical condition. A stand-up player moves with her feet but shoots with her hands. A wheelchair athlete does everything with her hands and I can only imagine what it must be like to try and shoot late in a game when your arms feel like rubber from pushing the chair around all game.
Obviously, there are a few differences necessary to accommodate the chairs which, for example, are considered an extension of the player’s body. A player’s position relative to his opponent is based on whose wheel gets to the spot first.
Travelling was the one call I couldn’t understand before seeing it. A player must dribble at least once for every two times he touches his wheels. Hypothetically, a player can roll all the way down court without dribbling, but no defender would let that happen and changing direction requires the player to touch his wheel.
Without the use of the lower body, the shooting motion is all arms and wrists, and without jumping ability many passes are lob passes over the top of the defense, again favoring size.
I asked Rathje after the game if it was a particularly physical game: “well, you have two of the top-four teams in the country, so you kind of expect a physical game.”
His Warriors were no match for the Hotwheels' size and lost the semifinal 70-48.
Come and See the Show
With the NFL draft a week away, baseball barely begun and college hoops over, there is probably a hole in your weekend sports TV schedule. The NWBA doesn’t have a television contract (yet) but you can catch the championship games for each flight streaming on the NWBA website.
Or if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by the Expo center and catch some of the action. I’m headed to the elite divisions tomorrow and I can’t wait to see the three-time defending champs, the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks.
Check back Saturday and Sunday for more game coverage.