Why the University of Alabama Produces Wheelchair Basketball Champions
Editor’s Note: The University of Alabama’s men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams have won four national championships. These wheelchair basketball teams recruit athletes from all over the world, including Great Britain, Canada, Lithuania, Australia and Germany. At the last Paralympic games, 20 athletes and/or coaches who had been a part of the University of Alabama’s adapted athletic program competed on various teams. Wheel:Life sat down with several members of BAMA’s wheelchair basketball teams to capture their thoughts on the value and power of the sport.
Dr. Brent Hardin Started the University of Alabama’s Wheelchair Basketball Program
Dr. Brent Hardin, the director of adapted athletics at BAMA, has a Ph.D. in adapted sports and started the BAMA’s adapted sports program in 2003. Dr. Hardin and his wife, Dr. Margaret Stran, wanted the program to give students with ambulatory problems the same opportunities to play college sports as other students on campus.
When I interviewed at the University of Alabama, I presented the idea of an adapted sports program for the university. Back then in 2003, I don’t think the university really understood the potential of this type of program. My wife and I came the same year as former president Dr. Robert Whitt did. He had served at the University of Texas at Arlington where there was a wheelchair athletics program. Dr. Whitt understood the value of this type of program and saw adapted athletics as a bright light for the U of A. He supported what we were doing from Day 1, and our support from the university has grown each year since. Our current president, Dr. Judy Bonner, was the provost at Alabama when we started, saw our program grow and is a big supporter of adapted athletics.
Our first sport was women’s wheelchair basketball, because we believed that was the area of greatest need.
Twelve years ago, only two women’s collegiate wheelchair sports programs existed in the nation. But hundreds of junior girls wanted to go to college and play wheelchair basketball. We looked at the teams that already existed, and we felt like we could be competitive.
My wife and I coached together for the first 5 years. By the third year, we were very competitive and made it to the Final Four. By the fifth year, we won our first National Championship in 2009. U of A’s women have won three National Championships and our men’s team has won one National Championship. Our wheelchair tennis team also has won one National Championship. These two programs have fulltime coaches who are employees of the university, and these programs offer scholarships.
Alabama takes scholarship athletes from all over the world. We also have emerging sports, including adapted rowing, wheelchair track and adapted golf. We’ve started a recreational wheelchair sports program that Dr. Stran runs now. The coach of the women’s wheelchair basketball team is Elisha Williams. The men’s wheelchair basketball coach is Ford Buttram. Both our coaches played for the University of Alabama’s wheelchair basketball teams and were assistant coaches before they became head coaches here. The University of Alabama is training wheelchair sports coaches, since there aren’t many available for the many teams and universities who need them.
Ten varsity players make up each of the men’s and the women’s wheelchair basketball teams, with five varsity players on the wheelchair tennis team. Individuals in wheelchairs, who aren’t varsity players, still have plenty of wheelchair sports and activities to participate in through our recreational sports programs. We’ve also developed a good camaraderie between the wheelchair athletes and varsity players who are not in wheelchairs at the U of A.
One of the main advantages we have at the University of Alabama is this university is recognized as one of the best academic universities in the world. Because we’re a large university, students can earn numbers of different degrees. If someone in a wheelchair loves sports, the U of A offers a tremendous sports program. Quite a few students who are studying adapted sports here also want to be coaches. The coaches of our teams, along with my wife and I are always glad to talk to other coaches and help programs get started – even in other countries.
Dr. Elisha Williams: Head Coach of the University of Alabama’s Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team
Editor’s Note: Dr. Elisha Williams of Prince George, British Columbia in Canada, was playing with Team Canada’s Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team when Dr. Brent Hardin, director of adapted athletics at the University of Alabama, recruited her to play for the U of A. She played basketball for 3 years, got her Ph.D., was an assistant coach and is now the head coach for the University of Alabama’s women’s wheelchair basketball team.
I played stand-up basketball in high school and at San Jose State. While playing college basketball, I kept tearing my ACL and played even when my leg needed to rest. Now I have osteoarthritis in my cartilage. I can’t run and jump like I did when I was younger. When I could no longer play basketball, I was bored. I had come home and remembered my town had a wheelchair basketball team. I called and asked if I could play.
I really didn’t think that they’d allow someone who wasn’t in a wheelchair all the time. But due to my disability, I could play wheelchair basketball. I got a wheelchair and learned how to push it around and play the game. The team I started playing on in 2005 was a part of an adult drop-in team. Then, I moved up to a wheelchair league team and finally to Team Canada.
I came to the University of Alabama in 2010, played wheelchair basketball starting in 2011 and earned my Ph.D. in exercise science and kinesiology. My undergraduate degree is in occupational therapy and my master’s degree in disabilities management. In the 2013-2014 season, I was an assistant coach, and we won the National Championship. In the 2014-2015 season, I became the head coach of the U of A’s women’s wheelchair basketball team.
The U of A can recruit great players because our women have the opportunities to earn quality academic degrees while playing a varsity sport. Also, Tuscaloosa, Ala., is a warm climate – a definite attraction for northern players and those from other parts of the world. Also, our campus is very flat, making it easier to navigate by chair. Buses pick up our student athletes and take them to class. And, having a nationally ranked football team certainly doesn’t hurt our recruiting.
One of the most difficult aspects of coaching wheelchair basketball is that many young people who play stand-up basketball may have been playing constantly from the time they’re 5 or 6. Many of our wheelchair athletes may have started playing wheelchair basketball because of a recent accident and perhaps not been involved in sports at all before their accidents. They don’t understand that to get a scholarship to play varsity wheelchair basketball you have to be as good at our sport as the stand up college athletes are at theirs.
Every day our varsity players lift weights, shoot baskets, come to practice, train hard and study, just like all other college athletes do. In our open tryouts, many ladies think we’re a recreational basketball team, but we’re not. Our players are students first and athletes second. Playing varsity wheelchair basketball requires a big time commitment to their studies and basketball. For those who aren’t competing at the varsity level, the U of A also offers a strong recreational wheelchair program.
Emotionally we’re very fortunate to have a very mature varsity team. We want our players to be aggressive and play hard. If they get into disputes or are too aggressive with each other, we want to teach them to leave that on the court, when the game’s over.
If our players have problems with teammates, we teach them to address those problems face to face, next take the problems to the captain of the team and then bring their problems to the coach. After a person’s playing eligibility ends, depending on where they live geographically, the players may have opportunities to coach after they graduate with the formation today of more college, club and recreational teams for women’s wheelchair basketball.
The women’s wheelchair basketball network is a small group of players and coaches. Once you make contacts with other coaches and people on other teams, often finding and getting a job as a coach is much easier now than it once was.
Or, you may want to consider getting the funding to start a team or a league. The expense in wheelchair basketball is the chairs. If you buy a large quantity of wheelchairs designed for basketball, you may be able to find some chairs for less than $2,000. Some of our players have wheelchairs that cost $6,000-$7,000 each.
Since the U of A has students and players from other countries, one of the requirements to be on our varsity teams is they must have good English language skills. We’ve been fortunate in that. At this writing in early 2015, the U of A women’s wheelchair basketball team is undefeated in the Intercollegiate Women’s Division. We’re hoping to go all the way to the National Championship.
Email Elisha Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mackenzie Soldan: Duel Sport Wheelchair Athlete
Editor’s Note: Mackenzie Soldan, originally from Michigan, moved to Kentucky and heard there about the University of Alabama’s women’s wheelchair basketball team. A fifth year student, she just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in advertising and is in graduate school for a marketing degree. She’s played on the U.S. National Teams for wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis.
I grew up in a tennis family. When I was 15, I went to a U.S. Tennis Association Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camp. The coach of the camp asked me to try out for the USTA Junior National Team. Next I made the U.S. National wheelchair tennis team and played from 2007 until 2012 and also played tennis internationally. I tried out for the U.S. Women’s Wheelchair National Basketball Team and made it in 2013, in 2014 and 2015. However, when I qualified for the USA National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team, I had to give up the U.S. National Women’s Wheelchair Tennis Team.
Basketball has been my passion from the time I was 7 years old and went to my first practice. But tennis opportunities came first. I came to the University of Alabama because I really liked the campus. I really didn’t know anything about the Alabama football team then. Now football’s a big part of my life.
The U of A isn’t far from my family in Kentucky. I like the team and the coaches here, and I got to play on the Alabama women’s wheelchair team that won the 2011 National Championship. Last year, our team finished second in the nation.
People often ask why I use a wheelchair. When I was less than a year old, I was riding in a car with my parents and they noticed I screamed whenever we hit a bump. They took me to the doctor, who found I had a pretty large tumor growing on my spinal cord. When I had surgery to remove the tumor, I became paralyzed.
Six months later, I wasn’t improving. When the doctors examined me, they told my parents my tumor had grown back and was even bigger this time. The doctors said they could do chemotherapy and radiation to slow down the growth of the tumor, but I’d be sick and have problems breathing. They thought I’d probably only live for a few more months.
Eight months later, I was still paralyzed, but I didn’t show any symptoms like the doctors had predicted. I had an MRI and learned my tumor had quit growing. The doctors removed the tumor, and I haven’t had any more problems. That of course put me permanently in a chair, but it also put me on the court.
Primarily, I play the guard position on our basketball team. Wheelchair basketball is an intense sport and allows me to release my feelings. I’m very competitive. With basketball, I can play hard, and my teammates are always pushing me to be better. Our team is like a family. We watch out for and take care of each other.
Many of our players can pop right back up by themselves if their chair flips during a game. However, I have to have someone else right me when I tip my wheelchair over. So, unless I’m under the goal, I have to stay on the floor until someone comes to help me because I can’t push myself up.
I encourage other women in wheelchairs who love to play basketball to come to the U of A to play, because the basketball program here is still fairly young, and the teams have had a tremendous amount of success. Dr. Brent Hardin, director of adapted athletics at the U of A, does a very good job of running the program and coordinating all aspects of both the women’s and men’s wheelchair basketball teams.
Everyone on our teams are very accepting of newcomers, and the University of Alabama is great to attend. I can get my education here and play basketball every day. I’m excited about finishing up my master’s degree in marketing and have three more semesters before I graduate. I want to promote and market wheelchair sports. I’m convinced wheelchair sports can be so much more than they are with good marketing support, and we can help so many more athletes who are participating in adaptive programs.
Jannik Blair from Australia to London to South Korea to the University Of Alabama
Editor’s Note: Jannik Blair from Horsham, Victoria, Australia is one of the best international wheelchair basketball players. When he graduates, he hopes to play for a professional wheelchair basketball team in Europe. An exciting player, Blair is strong and quick and shoots lights out.
I was initially recruited to the University of Missouri where I spent my freshmen year playing wheelchair basketball. I played against the University of Alabama’s team. I got involved with the Australia men’s wheelchair basketball team (known as the Rollers). At that time, the head coach of the University of Alabama’s women’s team was Miles Thompson, someone I’d crossed paths with at different times at several international tournaments. I asked him, “What’s the possibility of me transferring to the University of Alabama to play for the Alabama team and going to school there?”
I began the process and came to the U of A in 2013 to play for the wheelchair basketball team. I’m majoring in management with a specialization in global business. When I graduate, I want to continue to play for my national team in Australia. Hopefully, one day I’ll play for a professional team in Europe.
While in school, I’d like to start working for a company in the grain export business to learn more about exporting grain to Europe. My family has a farm and exports grain from Australia to Europe.
One question I’m often asked is: “How did you become disabled?” When I was 12 in 2004, I was riding in a truck on my family’s farm, and I didn’t have on my seatbelt. I was thrown out the window of the truck, and the truck rolled over my back. It broke my back, and I’m a paraplegic today. I was in a coma for a week, I was in ICU for a month because my lungs collapsed, I was on a ventilator, and I couldn’t eat, breathe or talk on my own for a month. I was in rehabilitation for 4 months before I was released to go home. Then I returned to school. The first wheelchair basketball team I played for was a local team in my hometown.
I progressed to a state team and next the Australia Men’s National Team. At the Paralympics in London, we won a silver medal and then a gold medal in 2014. Too, we won a gold medal in the World Championships in South Korea. The first time I played against the University of Alabama in my freshman year at Missouri, the U of A beat us pretty soundly. When I came down for a recruiting trip, I was impressed with the coaches, the players, the campus and the opportunity to get a degree at the University of Alabama.
I was lucky enough during my trip to be here when the Alabama football team played football at home, and I went to that game – an experience I’ll never forget. I’ve really enjoyed my time here. The top men’s wheelchair basketball players in Europe probably make over $100,000 per year with the middle range for a professional player probably around $50,000 to $60,000 per year. With the increased support and awareness of wheelchair basketball there, opportunities are growing for players in the professional ranks in Europe and I would love to play on that level one day too.
Ford Buttram Came to the University of Alabama to Play Basketball and Never Left
Editor’s Note: Ford Buttram from Pensacola Beach, Florida, was on the first-ever men’s wheelchair basketball team for the University of Alabama and was captain for 3 years. He was the second recruit that Dr. Brent Hardin, director of adapted athletics at the University of Alabama, signed to come to the University of Alabama. He’s been in three National Championship games. When he played for the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, his team won the National Championship. When he coached with Dr. Hardin for the University of Alabama’s women’s wheelchair basketball team, that team won a National Championship in 2009, and he served in 2013 as an assistant coach with Miles Thompson. He’s won two National Championships – one as an assistant coach and one as a player. Today, he’s the head coach of the University of Alabama’s men’s wheelchair basketball team.
I love basketball. I’ve been a part of the University of Alabama’s wheelchair basketball program ever since it started. When our men’s head coach Miles Thompson had an opportunity to leave the University of Alabama to coach the Great Britain women’s national wheelchair basketball team, I had been an assistant coach for 5 years. I applied for the job of head coach and got it.
I’m a paraplegic with a T5/T6 break. When I was 16 years old, I went through the windshield of my car at 85 mph. I had played basketball before my accident. I met a lady named Stephanie Jenson from Mobile, Alabama, who coached the Mobile Patriots wheelchair basketball team. She asked me, “Why don’t you play basketball?” I looked at her like she had three heads and answered, “No, I’ll never play basketball again.”
But before I knew it, I was playing wheelchair basketball. Two years later I was playing wheelchair basketball at the University of Wisconsin, but left there when my father passed away. Then I had an opportunity to come and play at the University of Alabama.
I got a bachelor’s degree in arts and science with a focus on leadership and motivation, and I’ve got two associate degrees – art and elementary education, and another degree in applied science with a focus on drafting. I decided early on that sitting at a desk all day long really wasn’t what I wanted to do. Although working with children was fun, I really loved coaching basketball and getting involved in young men and women’s lives. I have the opportunity to help them blossom into adults. I really think that coaching is my path through life.
Since the sport of wheelchair basketball is growing on the collegiate level, the need for wheelchair basketball coaches is also growing. There’s even more opportunities for coaches in the Junior 10’ Division, the Championship Division and Division III. I also have several friends in wheelchairs who coach stand-up basketball, golf, football and track and field from their wheelchairs.
One of the challenges in coaching wheelchair basketball is there’s no lateral movement when you’re in a wheelchair like there is in stand-up basketball where the players can move sideways. We have to coach players to move sideways without actually moving their wheelchairs sideways. I enjoy seeing our players learn how to:
- move their wheelchairs sideways in 1/4- and 45-degree angle turns;
- talk to the other players on their teams; and
- make those type moves we call “slides.”
Often freshmen players don’t want to be the person on the floor screaming and hollering at everybody in a team setting. However, by the time they’re fourth and fifth year seniors, they’ve developed these communication skills that are absolutely necessary for a team to play together.
Away from the basketball court, one of the biggest problems for our young people is that they don’t have role models. But in wheelchair basketball, more videos are becoming available to enable young people to see how better players play.
When I was growing up, my dad, who was a great father, was my role model. Through wheelchair basketball, I’ve been blessed to have connections with great people as models. When I was young, Eric Barber was my wheelchair basketball role model. He played for the University of Wisconsin Whitewater and Team USA and still plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. My role model for coaching was Miles Thompson, our head coach here at the University of Alabama, and others.
I encourage young people in wheelchairs to get involved in one of the many adapted sports, because sports is life, and life is sports. Young people can learn how to:
- act in social settings;
- get in and out of showers;
- transfer in and out of beds; and
- get on and off buses.
Another challenge in wheelchair basketball is to teach players how to get themselves and their chairs back up once they get tipped over. Depending on the types of disabilities and the kinds of chairs they have, each player has to learn various techniques to get back up quickly and return to the game. Some players have to roll over on their sides, and some single amputees just stick their feet out and pop back up.
I’m really excited about the 2015 U of A men’s wheelchair basketball team. I don’t think there’s a ceiling on what these talented young men can achieve.
These men aren’t just good at playing basketball – they’re good men.
We recruit heavily to get the best players we can, and we also encourage all men in wheelchairs to try out for the team. Freshmen practice at the beginning of the season, and that’s when people should try out.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.