The Road to Louisville
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.
Dallas Junior Wheelchair mavericks player Zachary Steger, right, has played with the team for the past nine years.
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.
“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.”
For more information, scores and updates from the NWBT, visit nwba.org.