Tip-Off in the Bluegrass

The best teams, players and coaches return to Kentucky in April for the 70th National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament

By Dave Royse

It’s always kind of hard to get away from basketball in Kentucky. That will be particularly true if you find yourself in Louisville’s Kentucky Exposition Center in mid-April. 

There, you’ll find 12 courts, all in the same venue, each filled with wheelchair basketball players, both kids and adults — and several games running at the same time. 

“Everywhere you look there’s basketball,” says Trooper Johnson, who is the coach of the U.S. women’s national wheelchair basketball team and one of the most prolific scorers the game has ever seen when he was a player. “For a basketball junkie, it’s a great experience.” 

The event, which will run April 12-15, is the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, presented by ABC Medical. This is the 70th year for the tournament, which has been held in Louisville since 2013. The first tournament in 1948 allowed teams of paralyzed World War II veterans from various Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country to play against each other. 

Johnson will be in Louisville during the tourney to scout talent for future national teams. The current team was chosen in January at tryouts in Colorado. But he’s also hoping to be there as the coach of his youth club team, the Junior Road Warriors, from the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program in Berkeley, Calif. — assuming they qualify.

Only the top 48 junior teams in the country go to the tournament. The junior tournament is split into three divisions: junior varsity, which is the top 16 ranked teams in the nation; junior varsity NIT, which is the next 16 ranked teams; and junior prep, which is 16 lower-level teams. Teams can also qualify at certain regional tournaments. Not everybody gets to go — there are more than 80 junior prep and varsity level teams around the country.

The tournament also includes an adult division, which will bring another 48 teams to Louisville. The adult division is also split into three 16-team divisions, with the top one, Division I, featuring the best players in the country.

“That’s where you see most of your Paralympians,” says National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Executive Director Anthony Bartkowski.

Below that is Division II, and then Division III, which Bartkowski says includes teams more on the recreational end of the competitive spectrum.

Last year’s tournament had 95 teams and more than 1,100 athletes, and this year’s tournament should be about the same. 

“By the numbers, it’s pretty impressive,” Bartkowski says. “It’s the largest wheelchair basketball tournament in the world.” 

A Valuable Experience

Johnson says he enjoys taking youth teams to the tournament as much for the experience as for the competition, adding that some of the non-game experiences can be just as much, or even more important, than whether players come home with a medal.

Having so many teams in one place gives them a sense of the size of their community — that they’re not alone in what they’re doing, and that they can play a long time.

“You want them to understand the scope, the opportunities to continue to play ball beyond the junior level,” Johnson says.

Bartkowski says the value goes beyond spectating. Young players can interact with older ones.

“To be able to go up and talk to your idol, asking them questions, ‘How did you get to be a Paralympian? What does that mean? How does it feel to
represent your country?’ That’s invaluable,” Bartkowski says. 

It’s motivational and horizon-broadening.

“They get to watch the top-tier players and see where the sport can lead you,” Johnson says.

One place it can lead is playing in college. For college coaches, the NWBA National Tournament is a rare chance to see nearly every player in the country who might have the talent to play at the collegiate level, all in one place, and in many cases playing against each other.

“Are you kidding? [College] coaches are half our audience,” says Johnson. “The tournament is huge, so it’s an amazing opportunity for them, too.”

The college coaches aren’t just looking for the best athletes, they’re making pitches for players — even some who may not be among the most elite — to check out their programs. Several coaches put on informational presentations at the tournament, hoping to raise awareness among the families and coaches of the younger players about which colleges have wheelchair basketball programs and where they fall in terms of the level of player who’d fit best there.

There will be several teams that top coaches will be watching at the junior level, says Johnson, and any number could contend for the top spot. In the most recent mid-January rankings, the Houston Junior Hotwheels were the top-ranked team in the nation and had already qualified for the nationals. BlazeSports Junior Hawks from the Atlanta area, the RHI Racers from Indianapolis, the WASA Junior Bucks from Milwaukee, the Nebraska Red Dawgs and the Utah Rush are all among the top-ranked teams expected to do well.

Johnson says he’s been impressed by the team from Utah, having seen them recently, but noted Utah was recently beaten in a tournament by the Chicago Skyhawks, who have one of the most exciting young players in the country, 13-year-old Ixhelt Gonzalez. She was just selected to the women’s national wheelchair basketball team, so he’s interested to see how the Skyhawks do in the tournament.

“She’s extremely talented,” Johnson says. 

Chance To Grow

In addition to coaches, the tournament also draws hundreds of spectators, mostly the players’ families.

That’s one of the reasons — aside from a general local basketball craziness — that Louisville keeps hosting the tournament. It fills up 3,000 hotel rooms and has a $3 million local economic impact, says Karl Schmitt Jr., president and CEO of the Louisville Sports Commission.

Schmitt says community partners are invaluable, particularly Louisville Metro Parks Adaptive and Inclusive Recreation, as well as KentuckyOne Health’s Frazier Rehab.

The local adaptive sports community also loves having the tournament there because it’s a chance to grow wheelchair basketball locally, exposing local wheelchair users to a possibility some may not have considered. 

The Louisville Sports Commission’s Vice President of Sports Development Greg Fante says the city also hopes it can become a more frequent host of adaptive sports events.

“This is the single largest wheelchair sporting event in the country that is held annually,” Fante says. “So that’s where we place a tremendous amount of value, because it puts us in that para, or adaptive, sports space.”

Fante says local officials have learned a lot in the five years the event has been held in Louisville, such as giving airport officials advance notice about large numbers of wheelchair athletes coming into the airport on certain days in order to help avoid delays. That’s something Fante says Louisville learned the hard way in 2013.

The NWBA also inducts new members into its Hall of Fame during the annual national tournament. They’ll be honored in a ceremony on the evening of April 14. The NWBA was expected to choose the new class of Hall of Famers from nominations in February.

Johnson, famous during his playing days as a gym rat who seemed to do little besides play, still spends tons of time on courts, now coaching and evaluating talent. For him, the national tournament is more than just another couple of days spent courtside — it’s bringing together a huge number of athletes with something in common.

“One of the things that always fascinates me is how it really has a sense of community and how powerful it is,” Johnson says. “You have, all together, all these athletes, incredibly active individuals, who all just happen to have disabilities.”


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