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  • Writer's pictureBen Rappaport

Arizona's Abby Dunn Is Just Getting Started

Abby Dunn has always been a straight-A student. She’s eager to learn about everything from internal medicine to the mechanics of a perfect jump shot. That’s why her teammates and coaches at the University of Arizona call her the sponge.

“She just soaks it all in,” her head coach Josie Aslakson said. “She’s so motivated to learn and she just has this fire in her to be a go-getter.”

The undersized first-year from Susanville, California hasn’t had much time donning Arizona Wildcat red and blue, but she’s already made an impact on and off the court. Her positivity is infectious to everyone she meets, convincing her coaches she will be a staple of the Arizona women’s wheelchair basketball team for the rest of her college career.

“Abby has a constant desire to improve, she’s very coachable, she’s the exact type of player everyone wants,” assistant coach Courtney Ryan said.

Her coachability and relentless optimism define Abby Dunn’s essence. Where many would falter, Abby’s mindset has always been just to roll with the punches and remain positive.

‘Negativity is the only true disability’

At 13 years old, Abby spent 35 days in the hospital after she was diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), which is a neurological condition most commonly found in young children that causes muscle weakness and, in cases as severe as Abby’s, can lead to permanent paralysis.

But Abby never let her diagnosis or being in a chair set her back mentally.

“I never dwell on my injury,” Abby said. “Negativity is the only true disability.”

In that way, Abby doesn’t see herself as ‘disabled’ at all. To her, it’s all about mindset.

“I never looked at myself or my abilities as world-ending” Abby said. “Life goes on, I just have to live it now.”

She said she gets her tenacious attitude from her father, Bill, who always encouraged his daughter to partake in the world of sports. Growing up, Abby played everything from basketball to gymnastics to water-skiing.

Just over three months after learning she would be in a wheelchair, Abby picked up a basketball and was back on the court. She’s now been playing for four and a half years.

Going the Distance

Abby was first introduced to the game of wheelchair basketball when a local club, the Rogue Valley Scorpions, came to her school in Susanville to give a wheelchair basketball demonstration. The Scorpions gifted her a special basketball chair and it was during the assembly Abby realized what her future could be.

From that moment on she was hooked. She started making her dad drive her four hours south to Sacramento so she could play for the Sacramento Royals, a local amateur team. The two would spend eight hours in the car on Sundays just so Abby could have a chance to play.

From there the drives got shorter, but the passion only grew. She joined a club team in Nevada, the Reno High Rollers, and started going to basketball camps at the University of Texas-Arlington.

Abby stood out on those teams not only for what she could do on the court, but also because she was often the youngest person and the only woman there.

Soon, she started getting texts from the recruiters at the closest collegiate wheelchair program, the University of Arizona.

Because Arizona just recently became a collegiate program, Abby was a pandemic recruit. She had never been to campus before signing her commitment letter, never seen the courts, never even been to the city of Tucson before her first day of practices.

Zoom was her only introduction to both the campus and her coaches. Suddenly, she was in the middle of a cactus-laden campus with a student population nearly three times the size of her hometown.

Becoming a Wildcat

Abby said those first few days she felt lost, but with newfound independence and the guiding presence of her new coach, Josie Aslakson, Arizona quickly became a home.

“Every day after practice we would get breakfast with some other girls on the team and we just kept growing closer,” Abby said.

Aslakson said she and Dunn have a special relationship because they both came to U of A this year.

“I see a lot of myself in her,” Aslakson said. “It’s fun to have someone like Abby on the team that I can give tips to that I would usually only use for myself.”

Abby and her head coach are also alike in their style of play — both are classified as type 1 players. In the game of wheelchair basketball, each player is rated type 1-5 with 1 being the most significantly disabled and 5 being the least. This means both Dunn and Aslakson have little to no control below their waist. As smaller players on the court, they often look to pass to taller players before they shoot. The typical type 1 player is much more of a ball-handler than a scorer, and often plays more minutes than their teammates because their presence on the court allows for players with more mobility, and bigger length, to be on the court.

But Aslakson has made an active attempt to redefine the role of the type 1 on her squad, especially for Abby.

“I want her to see herself as a shooter,” Aslakson said. “She’s just as valuable as any high pointer out there.”

Aslakson said she believes Abby can be a true scorer on the team in the coming years, despite the preconceived notions about the type of player she should be. Abby said the level of trust her coach has given her has helped her keep improving her own game on both sides of the ball.

“When someone with as much talent as Josie says you play like her, that is a huge compliment,” Abby said. “I try to model my game after her and be as good with my chair skills and picking as she is.”

Dunn is a picker on the floor — the pick and roll game is run through her and she is always looking to make the extra pass to her teammates. Never the type of player to loaf around, Abby is constantly moving both with and without the ball to properly set up the offense.

Now, Dunn has aspirations of continuing her basketball career beyond U of A and eventually hopes to be a member of Team USA. Her coaches, Josie Aslakson and Courtney Ryan, have both played at the Paralympic level and both believe Abby has what it takes to get there.

“Every elite player needs to put in their 10,000 hours,” Aslakson said. “She has tremendous instincts, it’s just a matter of her developing her game over time.”

Fighting for the Herd

The mentorship Abby has received makes her poised to be a leader on the Arizona team. She has bought into the message of building out this program and setting them down a path to win a national championship in the coming years.

“She really wants this program to succeed as much as we do,” Courtney Ryan said. “It’s always fun to have a player on the team who is willing to go above and beyond both on and off the court.”

Ryan said Abby has taken potential recruits around campus on multiple occasions, including once during finals week. Her coaches said she has consistently made efforts to form relationships with every player because she loves being a part of the team.

“Oftentimes with younger players you have to stay on them to make sure they properly adjust to playing at an elite level,” Asklakson said. “But Abby was never like that.”

Her coach said Abby never needed reminders to do her shooting drills or do her reps in the gym. She’s an underclassman with a level of maturity rarely seen in seniors.

That maturity also earned her another nickname, the foghorn. Ryan said she earned the nickname for her constant communication on the floor and fiery defense.

“She may not know all the fundamentals yet, but she’s really bought in,” Ryan said. “She is consistently one of the most communicative and loudest players on the floor.”

Abby said she prides herself on being a talker on the court. She said even if she is having an off day shooting or missing rotations on defense, there’s never an excuse to not bring energy to the rest of the team.

“I’m a team player,” Abby said. “I don’t play for myself.”

Ryan said Abby is the type of player that helps promote the environment desired for the newly assembled Arizona team: love, unity, and family.

Abby comes early and stays late at the gym. She has a hunger to keep improving. At one of her first practices, the team was instructed to push a mile on the indoor track as part of conditioning training. After Abby finished her mile, she kept pushing around the track so she could finish at the same time as the rest of her teammates.

“She fits what the Wildcat image is,” Aslakson said. “We want to create a brand with a moral compass.”

The Arizona team is still in the process of building that brand, with next season being the first time Aslakson will get to bring on her own recruits. As the team continues to grow, however, expect Abby Dunn to be a major part of the Wildcats push for a title.

“By the time she leaves this place, she won’t just be a foghorn,” Ryan said. “She’s going to be the general.”

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