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Tip-Off in the Bluegrass

Reprinted from SNS March 2018

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

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.” 

 

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Tip-Off in the Bluegrass

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