Championship Joy for CJ McCarthy-Grogan and UTA
The University of Texas at Arlington’s men’s wheelchair basketball team trailed by 16 at halftime of the national semifinal game, 20 minutes away from suffering an upset loss and missing an opportunity to compete for a national championship.
As the team assembled in the locker room after its poor first half performance, a familiar voice emerged, lifting the spirits of his teammates with inspirational words filtered through an Australian accent. Clarence “CJ” McCarthy-Grogan, the Movin’ Mavs captain and fifth year senior, provided some much-needed motivation.
The veteran and the leader of the group preached “we’re still in this, there’s still 20 minutes to go. We’ve just got to worry about what we can control and we can do this.” In his even-keeled manner, McCarthy-Grogan made sure his teammates understood that in a 40-minute game the first 20 minutes did not define the Mavs.
The soft-spoken Australian knew a few words of encouragement could not right the ship alone, however. He also made sure that his attitude and body language never wavered, whether his team led by a basket or fell by double digits.
“I always play with heart. We can be down 20 points, I’m not going to give up,” McCarthy-Grogan said. “I’ve been playing this game for too long to just give up now.”
UTA came back and won by four. In the championship, UTA defeated Alabama by 11 to capture the national title, its third in the last five years, all with McCarthy-Grogan.
And the victory meant more than just an additional banner in the UTA rafters. Following the championship game in mid-March, a flag draped over his back. The black, yellow and red flag represents the indegenuous people of his home state of Darwin, Australia. This was not the first time McCarthy-Grogan had donned the flag.
In 2017, McCarthy-Grogan wrapped it around him like a towel following UTA’s national championship victory his freshman season. Half a decade later, after a long journey in America, the flag once again covered him in his final collegiate wheelchair game, connecting his distant homeland to his adopted home in Texas.
While UTA had become his home during his educational and athletic journey, the flag testified that he has not forgotten where he came from and the people he represents in his home state.
Another reminder appeared in the stands. McCarthy-Grogan’s family looked on then celebrated the win with him after making the trip from Australia for the entire postseason run.
“Having my family there meant everything,” McCarthy-Grogan said. “My family had never seen me play at nationals before, not in person anyway. Having them here on our home court, being able to do that, that was surreal.”
McCarthy-Grogan started playing wheelchair basketball in 2005. He has a disability called fibular limb deficiency. His right leg did not form properly and grew much less than his left leg. He can walk short distances, but can not walk for too long or put too much strain on his legs.
McCarthy-Grogan always had a competitive fire and wheelchair basketball fueled that for him. He played throughout his youth and high school years in Australia, despite the lack of opportunities.
Wheelchair basketball lacks popularity in Darwin. But he had played in the National Wheelchair Basketball League in Sydney, where he attended boarding school.
He first came to America at the end of 2011 for a junior tournament and met UTA head coach Doug Garner. Though Garner put forward his best recruiting efforts, McCarthy-Grogan opted out of traveling halfway across the world for college. In fact, he no desire to attend more school at all.
He did, however, want to keep playing basketball. In order to do that, he needed to find employment to support himself. Over the next four years, he worked at two major banks as a teller and personal banker while continuing to compete in wheelchair basketball.
Yet something just did not feel right for McCarthy-Grogan.
“For me, it just got to that point in my life where I realized, you know what… I know I don't want to do this for the rest of my life,” McCarthy-Grogan said about working in the banking industry. “It just wasn’t for me personally.”
That is when McCarthy-Grogan got in touch with Garner and, at 23-years-old, decided to move to America to pursue a degree and a wheelchair basketball career at UTA.
Garner quickly deemed McCarthy-Grogan a special player and person.
“He had a maturity that helped him communicate, ‘hey, it’s not all about yesterday, it’s not all about today, it’s about where we’re going’” Garner said.
McCarthy-Grogan had always been the star of his teams back home and early on in his career cared more about scoring than getting his teammates involved. Only when McCarthy-Grogan began to play with players of his caliber did a new, unselfish style of play take his game to new heights. By the time he got to UTA, he had become a willing passer which allowed Garner’s deep rosters to flourish.
“I came here as a player, like I just want to do the best for my team and I want to do my job to the best of my ability,” McCarthy-Grogan said.
Garner truly realized the degree of impact McCarthy-Grogan could have on a game during the the 2017 championship match-up with Wisconsin-Whitewater. Though in the hostile environment of Wisconsin-Whitewater's home court, that phased McCarthy-Grogan not at all.
“He just ran the pick-and-roll so well, either from the lowside or the high side that year and the player who worked with him was named MVP of the tournament because CJ set him up for like 22 points,” Garner said.
The pick-and-roll became a staple for Garner’s offense with McCarthy-Grogan leading the show. It was virtually unguardable and an opportunity for McCarthy-Grogan to set his teammates up but also have chances to score himself.
“I’m looking more as a facilitator first. Don’t get me wrong, I like to shoot, I like to score baskets, but I like to create opportunities first because then that actually opens up my game more,” McCarthy-Grogan said. “I love the pick and roll game. I think towards the end of my time here I’ve got it down pretty crisp.”
The three championships serve as icing on the cake for McCarthy-Grogan, but why he packed up and moved halfway across the world goes beyond the trophies. The real reward is the degree McCarthy-Grogan will receive in the next month.
“It’s not just about playing basketball, it’s also about the opportunities to be able to live in another country, coming to the U.S., getting an education here,” McCarthy-Grogan said.
With two journalist parents, McCarthy-Grogan originally pursued that path. He switched to public health before moving over to university studies and also completed a minor in disability studies.
Hesitations existed about committing to attend school and play basketball in the United States. Leaving your family and home country behind without knowing what the future holds can be daunting. But once McCarthy-Grogan made the decision, there was no turning back.
“I made that promise to Coach that I want to be here for five years. I want to get my degree. And in between, I’d love to win a couple championships,” McCarthy-Grogan said. “Championships were cool, but those were just bonuses compared to being able to stick it out and actually finish my degree.”
McCarthy-Grogan also knows how difficult his journey has been as a disabled and an indigenous person. He calls it a “double whammy,” meaning he has to deal with the challenges that come as a minority in his state and the challenges that come as a disabled person.
When he talks about everything he has accomplished over the last few years, he makes it obvious how much he appreciates the opportunity he has and recognizes the rarity.
“Not too many people from my hometown get this opportunity,” McCarthy-Grogan said. “Coming from a city like Darwin, it means a lot because there’s not too many wheelchair basketballers.”
Indigenous people only make up about 3% of the population in Australia and are a marginalized group due to the cultural and economic oppression they face.
“To be in the position I am, playing at the highest level in my sport, that means a great deal to me,” McCarthy-Grogan said. “I’m very fortunate and I’m very proud to be where I am and who I am.”
Many indigenous people don’t get the opportunities to go to America or receive an education like McCarthy-Grogan has. Taking a moment to drape the flag over him following the championship victory last month, he showed people what is possible and made sure no one forgot his roots.
McCarthy-Grogan's success is possible because of an incredible support system, led by his parents. His father and mother were one of 11 and five siblings, respectively. Growing up in such large households presented challenges for his parents. They instilled into McCarthy-Grogan that obstacles can be opportunities that present a new challenge to overcome.
“We all have our own barriers to get through in life and some are just more visible than others,” McCarthy-Grogan said.
With his chapter at UTA coming to a close, he’s ready to start writing the next one. McCarthy-Grogan does not know exactly what the future holds, but his wheelchair basketball career is far from over. He is pursuing options to play in Europe. But beyond the court, McCarthy-Grogan has his sights set on making a difference.
“I want to create a business that will help people with disabilities, but also help those without a disability to be able to help educate and teach them about the dos and don'ts and just raising more awareness to try to break those social barriers,” McCarthy-Grogan said.
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