CHAMPAIGN — They don’t pack the place for an exhibition game, like Brad Underwood’s men, or have the media buzzing over a national ranking, like Shauna Green’s women.
But there are couple of other basketball teams on the University of Illinois campus worthy of your attention, including one that tipped off their season this weekend with three wins in two days in Texas.
“Wheelchair basketball is considered a charity sport, but we’re more than that,” said Shawn Sloan, a senior journalism major who plays for an Illini wheelchair program that, 75 years ago, became the first to form on a college campus.
“We’re all athletes. I just want people to give us that respect that we are a real team, we’re real athletes and we’re fighting for what we want.”
The program founded by disability pioneer Tim Nugent and nicknamed the Gizz Kids, wheelchair basketball’s answer to Harry Combes’ famed Whiz Kids, has claimed 15 national titles over the years.
Just one championship behind: the Illini women, formed in 1970 as the Ms. Kids.
Among this year’s additions is freshman general studies major Annika Cassidy, new to C-U by way of Canada. She has high hopes for a team that’s off to a 3-0 start and wants people to see what they can do.
“I feel like I’m being handled like something delicate, especially when you’re walking around campus, people are moving out of your way and opening doors and it’s like, I can do all this stuff,” she said.
“Then I get in the gym and they see how aggressive I am on my chair.
Cassidy was a gymnast in Calgary, Alberta, for 16 years before a mitochondrial disease changed her plans.
A lot of people assumed she played basketball because Cassidy was so tall, but she never had interest. Calgary Grizzlies basketball player Chad Jassman changed her mind when he taught her how.
“He’s bumping my chair, he’s hitting me hard, I fall over. That was like the, ‘Oh, I really like this,’” Cassidy said. “I’m not seen as something different or weak or whatever.”
Cassidy, like the rest of her teammates, was recruited to the UI by coach Stephanie Wheeler.
Wheeler played on the Illini women’s wheelchair team from 1999-2004, was on the national team after that, then became coach 15 years ago. She was drawn to the sport for the same reasons as Cassidy.
“We’re treated as fragile, we’re treated as less-than, we’re treated as if we’re broken or our bodies aren’t capable of being physical,” Wheeler said. “What the sport does is it shows you that you’re capable of being physical; you’re not going to get hurt.”
From a rules standpoint, wheelchair basketball is almost identical to traditional basketball, with a few exceptions.
Traveling calls are a bit different, based on pushes rather than steps, but it ends up working similarly as pushing one wheel works like a pivot and any touch to the wheels counts as a push.
There’s also a classification system for different players’ disability levels on a five-point scale.
Coaches can only have a total of 15 points across all players on the court at a time, so men’s coach Matt Buchi said he has to think pretty quickly.
Buchi is starting his 11th season as coach.
“It’s great for getting those that have high disabilities to be very valuable individuals in the sport, but it gives me a pretty good math problem during every game,” Buchi said.
Other than that, the main differences between the two kinds of basketball stem from strategy.
Wheelchairs don’t have lateral movement and chair-to-chair contact is fully allowed, so it’s a lot easier for a defense to pin an opponent down.
For the Illini teams, the budget affects training.
Without the funds to fly to many individual games, tournaments have become the main focus, meaning endurance is important.
“They don’t expend everything in one game and know that they have a night off,” Buchi said.
For example, at this weekend’s Texas-Arlington Tournament, the men played three games on Friday, then another at 9 a.m. Saturday.
Both the men’s and women’s teams recruit from all over.
Grad student Jarrod Emeny made one of the longest trips, coming from Wollongong, Australia.
Even before the car accident that meant he would need to use a wheelchair himself, Emeny knew Grant and Janna Mizens, Paralympians who both attended Illinois.
Grant Mizens visited Emeny while he was still recovering in the hospital with a simple message: “Get started.”
After asking the Mizenses “so many dang questions,” Emeny knew he wanted to go to the UI, but the connections didn’t stop there.
He met Illini players Ryan Glatchak and Gabe DenBraber at last year’s world championship.
“We instantly got on. Gabe is — everyone wants to be his mate; he’s the funniest dude to be around,” Emeny said.
The guys stayed in touch, Emeny got recruited to the UI, and he said he wouldn’t change it for the world.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy; Emeny said understanding the American health care system has been difficult, plus he misses his family and friends back in Australia.
The time difference means there’s basically never a good time to talk.
“That’s really been a troubling sort of concept to deal with, not being able to have more contact,” he said.
Overall, he’s trying to stay positive because he said the good things about going to Illinois outweigh the bad ones. And he’s focusing on winning.
“I’m looking forward to the struggle. It’s obviously hard at the time, but when we get to the final game and we end up on top, that’s going to be the time for the school to be proud of us,” Emeny said.
The learning curve
Emeny, like Cassidy, had only played wheelchair basketball for a short time before competing at a high level — though his career started in Australia, while hers started at Illinois.
That experience isn’t uncommon at all across the teams.
Junior general studies major Hailey Smith played stand-up basketball prior to wheelchair basketball, but she said the knowledge didn’t completely transfer over.
“It’s mainly the chair and how to use it,” Smith said. “There is real skill in knowing what angles to use for defense and then based on your classification, knowing your limits and what you’re able to do in your chair.”
Smith said she appreciates the close-knit community in the sport, which is actually how she got recruited to Illinois.
Her coach in her hometown of Urbana, Md., knew Wheeler and gave Smith her number to send videos of her shooting and convince Wheeler to recruit her.
Even with the difference in applicable skills from stand-up basketball, she said wheelchair basketball is just as intense.
“We still compete to the same level; we still practice as much if not more than any able-bodied sport does,” Smith said. “It’s a very competitive sport, even though it may look different.”
Senior sociology major Mary Wagstaff hadn’t played at all when she convinced Wheeler to recruit her so she could join sister Marlee on the team.
“I literally had never picked up a basketball,” Wagstaff said. “It was definitely something that I was not expecting to be as hard as it was.”
Wagstaff spent her freshman year as manager, then started playing the following year.
Her confidence has continued to grow, which she credits to Wheeler and her teammates.
“Our team is connecting way more than we have in the past and that connection is allowing us to play well together on the court,” she said. “Even if we’re getting frustrated with each other, we have a bond.”
Both coaches say that encouraging that bond is important.
Buchi said that rather than appointing team captains, he has his more experienced players think of themselves as “lifeguards.”
“They continue to stand ready at the beach and make sure no one is drowning and take care of each other,” Buchi said.
One of those more experienced athletes is Sloan, who has been playing since he was 10.
He was recovering from surgery for his cerebral palsy when a local coach got in touch.
“I said, ‘I don’t even know what that is,’” Sloan said.
Sloan checked out a practice and fell in love with the game, but he said he’s still been learning and growing through the Illini team even though he’s been playing for so long.
“All the older guys that were here, all the vets that helped bring me up and helped bring some of my teammates up, they were huge in my development,” Sloan said. “So just being here, it’s been great for me now becoming a man, in a way, like on the court and off the court.”
He’s hoping to pass down that experience to his younger teammates and continue the cycle.
Sloan said that community goes beyond this team and he has great memories of opponents supporting each other, but that doesn’t mean there’s no competitive spirit.
“We’re always fighting adversity in our lives, with disabilities and all types of stuff,” Sloan said. “When you’re on the court, you’re still fighting adversity trying to win the game.”