Once a high school standout, paraplegic Hambicki stays connected to the court

Tommy Hambicki coaches the Chandler Basha High JV boys basketball team during its game against Tempe Corona del Sol on Jan. 23.

Basketball is the one constant for Tommy Hambicki for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Gilbert, Hambicki loved to watch, talk about and, most of all, play the sport.

Hambicki not only played on the largest stage an Arizona high-schooler can, he excelled. But that was more than a decade ago.

Hambicki now gets much of his basketball fix through coaching.

As the Basha junior varsity boys coach and a varsity assistant under former teammate and longtime friend Mike Grothaus, Hambicki and Grothaus took the opportunity during last week’s bus trip to Yuma to pop in the game tape from Gilbert High’s Class 5A state championship victory in 2003.

"We watched the skinnier versions of ourselves run around and make plays. And then we celebrated when it was all over," Hambicki said before he briefly paused.

"That was the last time I played basketball like that."

Hambicki paused again, but briefly before the optimism that oozes from nearly every word returned to the 28-year-old’s voice.

It was as if, in that short silence, Hambicki was transported back to his senior year at Gilbert. Before his life changed forever.

Sixteen days after he scored eight points in the final six minutes of the Tigers’ 61-56 title win over Desert Vista, Hambicki was involved in an ugly car accident.

Sixteen days after experiencing the euphoric feeling of capping a 31-3 season with the school’s first state championship, Hambicki couldn’t feel anything from the waist down.

That was the last time I played basketball like that.

Tommy Hambicki

As he and four friends made their way home from a spring break trip to Puerto Penasco, Mexico, commonly know as Rocky Point, Hambicki lost control of the vehicle (alcohol was not involved) and it crashed in a ditch along the two-lane highway just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Hambicki’s was the only serious injury. When the Ford truck rolled and came to rest on the driver’s side, the pinched spinal cord and snapped vertebra left Hambicki, who was not wearing a seatbelt at the time, a paraplegic.

Hambicki underwent multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation but graduated that spring and began as an assistant coach at Gilbert the following season to stay connected to the game he could "no longer play."

"I love the competitiveness of coaching and the chess match," Hambicki said. "I really enjoy the opportunity to pass along the game I learned and help mold kids into better players and better people."

He started a traveling club team and coached it for six years while also coaching in the Highland and Mesquite programs.

"Coaching is great but it’s different," Hambicki said. "It’s not like playing and they’re really not comparable."

The former point guard deeply missed being on the court, the ball in his hands. Hambicki was reluctant to play wheelchair basketball and resisted other’s urges to try it. But he eventually did so in 2006.

By 2011 Hambicki was playing at the University of Texas-Arlington, the No. 1 collegiate wheelchair basketball team in the country the previous year, on full scholarship.

Hambicki’s game developed from that of a facilitator and distributor as an able-bodied player to shooter, particularly from 3-point range, in the wheelchair game — until he learned to really control and maneuver his chair on the court.

Hambicki was named the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Intercollegiate Division freshman of the year in 2011-12, which fostered hope of making the U.S. Paralympics team.

"I had fulfilled my able-bodied dream of a college basketball scholarship," Hambicki said. "I definitely wanted to win a medal in the Paralympics and playing overseas was a possibility.

"But a tiny cut turned into a big thing."

We’ve known each other since seventh grade and he is the toughest person I know. He never gets down about anything. He just deals with everything that comes his way.

Mike Grothaus

During preseason workouts last year, Hambicki suffered a small cut on his left buttock from sheering (friction) with his chair. It turned into a staph infection, then an abscess and he was diagnosed with gangrene.

He underwent five surgeries to remove the gangrene, and any tissue and muscle the disease infected. He was left with little cushion in the area and doctors said he was unlikely to play again because the pressure would take too much of a toll.

Hambicki was limited to bed rest of long stretches during the spring and summer and moved back to the Valley in September, shortly after Grothaus was hired at Basha.

"We’ve known each other since seventh grade and he is the toughest person I know," Grothaus said. "He never gets down about anything. He just deals with everything that comes his way.

"Coaching together is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. You can’t ask for anything more than doing what you love and doing it with your best friend."

Hambicki was just as optimistic as Grothaus described when he was first paralyzed. Patients who suffered the same injuries had recovered to walk again in six months to two years. Or not at all.

"My legs feel better. I can feel things in them I couldn’t before," Hambicki told the East Valley Tribune in May 2003. "There’s never a time where I don’t think I’ll walk again."

Hambicki’s never-say-never attitude hasn’t changed but that was nearly 11 years ago.

"I never lose hope," he said. "I always hope for a cure with new technology and stem-cell surgery. But I’m realistic, too.

"This last year, going through the infection and the bed rest, was the only point when I went through any type of depression. When I first got hurt I was 18 with 3,000 kids supporting me. Last year I was 27 with just a close circle of friends."

That close circle very recently added a girlfriend, Brittany Olt, whom Hambicki described as "the girl I’m going to marry."

Once the Basha season ends later this month, though, will come a recommitment to training with an invitation to next year’s U.S. National Team tryouts as the goal. He already plays for the Phoenix Suns in NWBA men’s division weekend tournament a couple times a month.

The national tournament is in April in Louisville, Ky., where Hambicki hopes to catch the eye of USA Basketball officials.

"That’s my next goal," Hambicki said. "That’s what I want to do and I’m going to work as hard as I can to get there."