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The Road to Louisville

Reprinted from SNS March 2017

For the younger generation of players, this month's National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Kentucky gives them their chance to shine

Redemption is what Matthew Talbot and the Mary Free Bed Junior Pacers hope to find.

After advancing to last year’s National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s (NWBA’s) National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament (NWBT) in Louisville, Ky., the Pacers were upset 57-56 by the Rancho Renegades in the Junior Varsity Division, sending them to the consolation bracket. They battled back to win their final three games and finish ninth, but the 17-year-old high school senior acknowledges that first loss still lingers. 

“I was pretty disappointed because no one expected us to lose. And then, you lose that first game and you automatically can’t get better than ninth place. So you’re expecting to do better than that all year and then it happens. It’s kind of shocking,” says Talbot, who was born with polio, which distorted his left leg and left hip at a young age. “But now looking back on it, it shows how much work you have to do, how much better you can get. That’s what I love about basketball. You can always get better. You’re never going to be the perfect player. There’s always something you can work on.”

Youth Keep Tourney Going

After nearly a year of waiting, Talbot and the Pacers will have their chance for a title this year at the 2017 NWBT, which runs from March 30–April 2 at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.

Ninety-six teams and more than 1,000 athletes are expected to compete in six divisions, including the Division I, Division II and Division III categories and Junior Varsity, Junior Varsity NIT and Junior Prep categories. That’s up from 88 teams and 976 athletes who participated in the 2016 tournament. 

“I think it’s getting a lot bigger,” Talbot says. “... And I also know that wheelchair basketball has been getting a lot more attention in sports, too. Like in the 2016 Paralympic Games, huge crowds were now showing up to watch basketball. In years past, there wouldn’t be much attention towards it at all. So I think the popularity and the interest in the sport is growing, which
I think is fantastic.”

This year, the NWBA has made some changes by splitting the Adult divisions into Divisions I, II and III from just two (Championship and Division III). But it’s the younger generation’s group of athletes that keeps the tournament going. 

“This national tournament is incredible. I mean, you get something like 90 teams all in one place with however many athletes. A tournament we usually go to is eight to 10 teams and having up to 90 teams is incredible. There’s so much going on. You’re never bored,” says 17-year-old Abby Farrell, who plays for the Denver Junior Rolling Nuggets. “My favorite thing about the tournament is just getting to play basketball and watch basketball with the best people in the nation, just getting the opportunity to play alongside and against them. It’s an honor.”

An Air Academy High School senior who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., Farrell is an academic All-American and in her fifth year with the Junior Rolling Nuggets. Denver finished third in the Junior Varsity NIT Division last year after placing ninth in 2015. In early February, the Rolling Nuggets had moved into the top 10 rankings in the Junior Varsity NIT Division. 


Dallas Junior Wheelchair mavericks player Zachary Steger, right, has played with the team for the past nine years.

“I’m really excited, especially just 'cause it’s my senior year,” Farrell says. “So I want to do well my senior year. I’ve played with this team for as long as I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball. So I’ve seen everyone, including myself, make improvements. So I’m excited to see how we finish this year.”

Farrell is also in a unique situation. Teams in the NWBA Junior Varsity NIT Division are co-ed, and she’s one of the few females playing in the division. She says sometimes there are teams with no girls, while others have one or two. But the NWBT helps inspire her.   

During last year’s NWBT, the NWBA put together an all-girls game where girls from every team competing in the tournament scrimmaged together. 

“It was really cool to see the future of women’s wheelchair basketball,” says Farrell, who was born with spina bifida. “I’m a very short player — like I’m about 4-foot-8 standing up. So I’m very short. So you definitely have to work harder on defense to keep a lot of the guys out. There’s females that are tall. But for me, it makes me want to work even harder. There are guys who could be stronger and faster than me, but my goal is just to outwork them.”

 Putting In The Work

Zachary Steger acknowledges team camaraderie and chemistry are also important factors in this tournament. The 18-year-old, who was born with spina bifida, is on the Dallas Junior Wheelchair Mavericks and has played with that team the past nine years. One of his favorite moments came in 2011, his last year of Junior Prep Division play before moving up to the Junior Varsity Division, when Dallas went undefeated and won the NWBT Junior Varsity Division title in Denver. 

Dallas, which was top-ranked in the Junior Varsity Division in early February, finished fourth last year in the Junior Varsity Division and placed third two years ago.  

“Just knowing that you’re playing for the national championship, people are going to play harder,” says Steger, a Richardson, Texas, resident. “They’re doing anything to win the game 'cause it’s a single-elimination tournament, so I know everybody I’m playing against is going to give it their all, and I know I’ll give it my all. It’s definitely a fun tournament to be a part of.”

Steger has made new friends at the tournament, too. He exchanges text messages with Farrell and her teammate Josie DeHart and Brooklyn Nets player Kyle Jankowski, to name a few. 

Steger acknowledged his play has improved and wheelchair basketball has opened doors for him. He was recently selected to play on the Under-23 USA team in the 2016 Kitakyushu Champions’ Cup, a tournament that commemorates the 2002 Gold Cup World Wheelchair Basketball Championships, in Japan the week before Thanksgiving. 

“It just made me see all the different talent across the globe, especially Asia and Australia, 'cause they were all there,” Steger says. “It made me realize I needed to work hard to achieve the goals that I want and if I want to have an experience like that in the coming future, 'cause my goal is to become a Paralympian one day, it taught me to work hard and hopefully things will fall my way.”

Heading The Right Way

Things have certainly been falling Jankowski’s way this year. 

In December, he was named a NWBA Junior Varsity Division Player of the Week, averaging 26.5 points and 10 rebounds per game during a four-game stretch. He’s played with the Nets for three years after being with the now-defunct Long Island Lightning and is in his 10th NWBA season overall. He loves the NWBT’s tougher competition, and the variety of teams offers new insights.

“You get to face a lot of different teams from all over country, teams that you haven’t necessarily seen before, especially with teams being from all over the country. So teams from the East Coast rarely play teams from the West Coast, you definitely see a lot of new teams. You get to meet a lot of new people, connect with old friends,” says Jankowski, an 18-year-old high school senior who was born with severe muscle and joint weakness from his hips down to his ankles. “But mostly, it’s just the competition that I love. I love playing against the best teams that there are, that’s what I really look forward to doing each year.”

Jankowski even spent some time playing with the New York Rollin’ Knicks in the then-Championship Division. He was recruited to that team by his former Long Island coach Gerry Fleming, who let him come out to practices. Although Jankowski didn’t play in games, he was on the bench of the Knicks’ title-winning 2014 team. 

This year, Jankowski hopes the Nets can net a championship, too. Last year, the Nets finished 15th out of 16 teams. In early February, they were ranked 12th in the Junior Varsity Division. 

“I feel like the experience that the guys have gained, myself included, we have gotten to work together for another year, gotten to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses better and then work on our weaknesses together and just become a better team,” Jankowski says. 

All four athletes are ready for the end of the month, and Talbot can’t wait for the big-time title opportunity.

“It’s so intense, I love it. Everything counts. You have to make the least amount of mistakes,” Talbot says. “That is what you’ve worked all year for and you want to show up and just dominate it. It’s all about the competition.”

For more information, scores and updates from the NWBT, visit nwba.org.

 

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The Road to Louisville

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