Wheelchair basketball provides competition, camaraderie
Steve Tew has become known as one of the top athletes in the country in his sport. Tew, who has played basketball since he was a teenager, is a member of a team that plays in Sherwood and fills the gym for every home game.
Tew is a member of the Rollin’ Razorbacks, a wheelchair basketball team that is a member of the Arkansas Valley Conference. They are not part of the University of Arkansas, but have permission to use the name “Razorbacks.”
The community-based team was created in 1978 and has built a following. Dozens of fans will often even go to away tournaments.
“We have a lot of great sponsors and fans,” Tew said.
The Arkansas Valley Conference is part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) and the conference has eight teams: the Rollin’ Razorbacks (Little Rock); Shootin’ Stars (Fort Smith); MAPVA Chargers (Mid-America Paralyzed Veterans Association based in the Oklahoma City area); Oklahoma State University Spokes; Northwest Arkansas Wild Wheels (Springdale); Rollin’ RoustAbouts (Tulsa); and the Rollin’Raiders (Muskogee).
The teams play against each other in tournament style because to qualify for the national conference, each team must have a certain number of games played each season. With the teams being located from Little Rock to Oklahoma City, it’s difficult and expensive for everyone to travel, explained Craig Blanchard, the creator of the NWA Wild Wheels.
Each tournament features several teams and the pre-season tournament, held at OSU in October, had all the teams. Each team played a total of six times over a two-day period.
Blanchard said that while he understands the current system, he thinks most would prefer to not play more than two games in a given day. During the preseason tournament, the Wild Wheels played four games in one day after driving from Springdale that morning.
“It’s tough on the shoulders (to play multiple games of wheelchair basketball in a row),” he said.
Blanchard has played on a total of three teams in the conference, starting with the Rollin’ Razorbacks. He then started playing for the Fort Smith team, which he did for two years.
“But I was living in Rogers, working in Fayetteville and then driving to Fort Smith to play. It got to be too much,” Blanchard said.
So, three years ago he and co-worker Joe May started the Wild Wheels. They are in their third season.
Finding players can sometimes be tough but the team members are not shy about recruiting. Blanchard said when he runs in to someone who he thinks might qualify, he just asks them.
The same goes for coach Mike Baker from Muskogee’s team. The team took a break for a short time but came back together last year, he said.
“I’ll just approach someone I see with a disability and invite them,” he said.
At OSU, many times players will approach the team about playing.
“We are contacted by people who are interested in attending college at OSU, and would like to play wheelchair basketball during their time here,” OSU Spokes Stacy Pinney said. “We also actively recruit junior players at the national tournament each year.”
Players do not have to be a full-time wheelchair user to play. They simply have to have a physical condition that makes it impossible for them to play able-bodied basketball. Players who don’t have a sports wheelchair borrow one or most of the teams have team chairs that players can borrow. Sports wheelchairs are shaped much differently than standard chairs in that they have extra frame on the front and strong anti-tip equipment on the back. Their wheels also have more “camber”… meaning that they tilt inward at the top, allowing them to roll faster and turn better.
The basic rules within wheelchair basketball are similar to able-bodied ball, but they have to be interpreted differently. For example, traveling still exists in wheelchair basketball but it’s based on how many wheel thrusts the player makes between dribbling the ball.
Misty Overstreet has refereed college basketball for several years but this is her first year to ref wheelchair basketball.
“I heard it’s interesting to watch and wanted to try it,” she said. “(Refereeing) basketball is all about angles so refereeing wheelchair basketball is more challenging.”
Overstreet said she’s appreciated both the high level of competition but also sportsmanship among the players and teams.
“They have a real appreciation,” she said.
Austen Hendrickson has been a referee with the NWBA for seven years and he coordinates the refs for the AVC tournaments. During the week, his “regular” job is a physical education teacher at an Oklahoma elementary school.
“I teach a refereeing clinic at the (pre-season) tournament,” he said. “In wheelchair basketball, the easiest game to call would be the same (difficulty level) as the hardest to call in high school basketball.
“But the rules (for wheelchair basketball) are easy once you get past the wheelchair. Once you think of the chairs as part of their body, it gets easier.”
Several participants agreed that playing wheelchair basketball creates a sense of camaraderie among team members and gives people who might not otherwise have a physical activity the chance to play a team sport.
“It’s definitely an outlet for people with disabilities,” Baker said. “It gives them a chance to get exercise and to compete with others on an equal basis.”
Blanchard had similar thoughts.
“It lets people be active even with limited function,” he said. “It brings them more purpose, a more sense of belonging.”
Tim Eldridge, from the MAPVA Chargers, said that when someone is permanently injured then they are able to play wheelchair basketball, that person is able to get a piece of their life back. He’s played for 20 years.
“When (people) are injured, they think they will never compete again,” he said. “They may not be able bodied, but they can get that piece back.”
Being able to play also provides a sense of drive that is beneficial in other parts of life.
“The same confidence to play basketball is the same confidence I used to go to school and get a degree,” Eldridge said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t get his part of my life back.”
The remaining tournaments that are currently planned include (dates and teams invited are subject to change. All hosts play in their own tournament):
Nov. 6 hosted by Springdale (Wild Wings)
Teams: Muskogee, Little Rock, OSU and Fort Smith
Dec. 18 hosted by Fort Smith
Teams: Muskogee, Springdale and Tulsa
Jan. 29 hosted by Muskogee
Teams: Fort Smith, Tulsa and Springdale
Feb. 19 hosted by Tulsa
Teams: OSU, MAPVA, Muskogee and Springdale
Possible tournament in March to be hosted by Little Rock (TBA)
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