Wheelchair hoops thrives in Wisconsin town
WHITEWATER, Wis. — Heaven on earth for Derrick Bisnett is a tiny auxiliary gymnasium nestled among a row of campus buildings, tucked away from view of the student houses off Prairie Street at 3 p.m. on a late-April weekday.
Here, between two basketball hoops suspended over blue rubber flooring, is his sanctuary. For Bisnett and other members of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater wheelchair basketball program, a release from the daily stresses of life awaits.
"There's very few places in the world that you can have a set time to play," Bisnett says. "Everyone in the city in a wheelchair knows we scrimmage at 3 o'clock."
The opportunity to compete against other wheelchair basketball players on a regular basis is one not taken for granted by those in the gym. Not every town affords players this same experience.
Bisnett, a freshman and one of the top junior wheelchair basketball players in the world, would know.
In high school, he couldn't find a game anywhere near his hometown of Bismarck, N.D. Despite the city boasting a population of more than 61,000 people, it did not operate a wheelchair basketball program. Instead, Bisnett and his family drove seven hours each Friday after school to Minneapolis to play for the Junior Rolling Timberwolves. Bisnett practiced Saturday with the team and drove seven hours back to Bismarck on Sunday, working on his own during the rest of the week.
"Able-bodied people, if you want to get in a pickup game, you can go down to the YMCA," says Jeremy Lade, the UW-Whitewater men's wheelchair basketball coach. "You can get one any day you want. Some of these kids coming into school live in a city that doesn't have anybody in a wheelchair. You can go shoot around, but they can't ever get a pick-up game.
"They come to a place like this, they can get a pick-up game whenever they want, just like able-bodied basketball. That kind of opportunity is really eye-opening and exciting for a lot of people."
Such a unique experience is part of the package Whitewater offers to attract some of the top wheelchair college basketball players in the world to its program. Top-level coaches and facilities, coupled with a willingness by school administrators and townspeople (population 14,000) to support the program have made the men's and women's teams the envy of the wheelchair college basketball circuit.
Last season, both teams won national championships. Whitewater's men pummeled Illinois, 101-60, on March 10 to capture its 10th title. The women defeated Alabama, 63-34, one day later for their first-ever championship. Combined, the Whitewater teams finished 38-8, helping the programs gain a level of fame in town.
"Usually when you're on the street, you're seen as someone with a disability," says Bisnett, who was born with spina bifida. "But, especially in Whitewater, you're not seen as someone with a disability anymore. You're seen as an athlete.
"People know about our games, they know who we play. They know about our history. They're interested in coming and watching, so that's the really cool thing for me."
Folks in town are so interested that the attendance record in Whitewater's gym, the Williams Center, was set during the 2009 men's wheelchair basketball national championship. More than 3,500 people showed up to watch Whitewater win the title as event hosts. That record is even more impressive considering the men's able-bodied team is a perennial national championship contender at the NCAA Division III ranks and actually won the title last season.
"If you come here as a wheelchair athlete, you'd better be ready to perform at a high level," says Andre Bienek, a member of last season's men's wheelchair team. "It's as serious as it gets."
'No pity cry'
The history of wheelchair basketball dates to the 1940s, when injured World War II veterans returned home confined to a wheelchair, looking for an outlet to play sports.
According to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association website, the first wheelchair basketball game was played in 1946 by the California Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans. Two weeks later, the New England Chapter participated in a wheelchair basketball game, and the sport spread across the country. VA hospitals in Boston, Chicago, Memphis, Richmond and New York took up wheelchair basketball as well.
In 1949, a group of University of Illinois students formed the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, won by the Kansas City Pioneers. The annual tournament has continued in some fashion ever since.
Wisconsin-Whitewater began its men's wheelchair basketball program during the mid-1970s, and the sport found more stability at the college level in 1977. That year, the University of Illinois hosted the first intercollegiate wheelchair basketball tournament.
As the years progressed, so did technology within the sport.
Basketball-specific wheelchairs include several features that make them different from typical day chairs. Their wheels angle out to provide quick turns and more security on the court, though they wouldn't be able to fit through a typical doorway. Players use click straps, or seatbelts, around their waist and legs to protect themselves when falling over. Chairs have one or two back wheels to provide added stability and prevent flips backward. They also include front bumpers to protect players' toes during contact — and there is plenty of contact.
Whitewater women's wheelchair basketball coach Dan Price estimates a player falls over on two of every 10 possessions during play, but most are able to immediately push themselves upright.
"You can't play defense for us or make a shot if you're on the ground," Price says.
"The game doesn't stop," Bisnett says. "There's no pity cry."
The basic rules of the sport are similar to those of able-bodied basketball, and the wheelchair version is played with a 10-foot hoop on a standard basketball court. Traveling occurs when athletes touch their wheels more than twice after receiving or dribbling the basketball, though top-level players often dribble as much as able-bodied players.
One rule put in place to promote fairness is a point classification system. No team of five players during competition can have a player value exceeding 14 points on the court at any time. Players are given points based on their functional ability, with one being the lowest and four being the most functional.
Success at Whitewater
Wheelchair basketball is not a recreational endeavor. Not at Wisconsin-Whitewater, anyway.
Players are serious about the sport, as evidenced by the competitive level of play during 5-on-5 pick-up games. During the season, the men's and women's teams practice each day from 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and often come in on their own time to work out in the physical therapy room or do chair drills in the gym.
"I always run into people that say it's a recreation sport and you don't have contact," Bienek says. "They have all these stereotypes about sports for people with disabilities. They're definitely not true. If you go to the Paralympics, it's as competitive as it gets."
Bienek, a member of the German Paralympic national team, is among the group of international players Whitewater recruits annually. Members of both the men's and women's wheelchair basketball programs at Whitewater often represent their national teams in competition.
Bienek discovered Whitewater in 2005 while playing on the German junior national team at the world championships in Birmingham, England. Whitewater's former coach, Tracy Chynoweth, was a coach for the United States national team and convinced Bienek to come to Wisconsin.
That sort of meet-and-greet during international competition is not unusual.
Lade, for example, is a member of the United States Paralympic team and will compete in London later this summer. Bisnett is a member of the United States junior national team that recently traveled to Australia. Price was an assistant coach for the U25 American wheelchair women's basketball team last year in Canada. Bienek intends to pursue a wheelchair hoops career in Italy after graduation. And women's player Debee Steel is a member of the British women's national team, recruited to Whitewater after meeting several players from the American national team during tournament play.
"I came here just for the basketball program," Steel says. "There's no other reason why I'm here."
Whitewater's wheelchair basketball players have such a tight-knit community that some alumni — including Eric Barber, also a member of the US Paralympic team — stay in town just for the opportunity to play pick-up hoops during the week. The program hosts summer camps that brings dozens of players to campus and aids in recruiting. Lade himself was introduced to the sport at a Whitewater summer camp at age 13.
Financially, Whitewater also receives assistance from the school administration that allows it to thrive.
According to Lade, the university pays about $43,000 a year to help fund the men's program, and the team commits to raising an extra $10,000. Last season, Whitewater's men traveled to Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Illinois twice, playing multiple games at each site to make trips worthwhile. Of the Warhawks' 26 games, 19 were played on the road.
The Whitewater women's program receives slightly less money because it is a newer program in just its fourth year but also garners significant financial assistance. The women's team traveled to Pennsylvania, Alabama and Illinois twice, playing 12 of 20 games away from home.
Both programs fall under the umbrella of recreation and facilities rather than the athletic department, which makes it easier to function on their own. Whitewater is one of the few colleges that maintains a wheelchair athletic department.
"There's administrative buy-in from campus," says Chynoweth, the former Whitewater men's wheelchair basketball coach from 1998-2008. "You need people at the highest level of the university to care about what you're doing, not care about providing a sport that's going to help them meet quotas of underrepresented populations.
"They do it because they believe in it, because they care about it, and they see the impact it has on students. That's what they've got to have. If you don't have administrators on your campus that buy into it, you're not going to be successful."
An uncertain future
Though Whitewater is at the apex of wheelchair college basketball, the viability of the sport moving forward contains questions.
Currently, only seven men's programs have sanctioned wheelchair basketball: Illinois, Whitewater, Texas at Arlington, Missouri, Alabama, Southwest Minnesota State and Edinboro of Pennsylvania. The women's game has just five sanctioned teams.
And those numbers don't appear to be increasing in the near future.
"Right now, it's stagnant," Price says. "One of the things that is our biggest challenge is trying to get it to go up. We're trying to get other universities more involved. It comes down to tolerance. With the economy being as bad as it's been the last few years, more universities aren't going to add programs, they're cutting programs."
In addition to financial considerations at other institutions holding the sport back, Chynoweth says the pool of disabled students willing to be varsity college athletes is small. And that draws from an already small population of disabled college students. It is his hope that wheelchair college basketball can someday maintain eight to 10 teams that field consistent programs.
"I don't know how much growth potential there is in wheelchair basketball," Chynoweth says. "I don't want to sound skeptical, but at the same time we're serving a disabled student population. I'd like to see us accept who we are and be good at what we do."
The number of teams has fluctuated over the years, as has the competition level. But in many respects, Lade notes those concerns are less important than simply providing students an opportunity to attend a school they may not have otherwise considered — and giving them quality time on the basketball court, even if they face the same teams repeatedly.
Bisnett is among those who can truly appreciate the Whitewater experience.
"I just like being in a place where people know about wheelchair basketball," he says before taking his place on the auxiliary gym's blue rubber court.
At 3 p.m. on a Monday in late April, there is no place he'd rather be.
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