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  • Scott Appleman

Men's Wheelchair Update: Team Culture Clicking At Arizona

Ben Thornton, wheels on the foul line, lines up a free throw at the end of a two-hour Monday morning practice for the University of Arizona men’s wheelchair basketball team. Hunter Pinke circles the edge of the lane to Thornton’s right while speaking softly to his teammate.

Thornton shoots in a practice gym, but Pinke describes a tense situation at the end of a close game.

“It’s the fourth quarter.” Swish.

The university custodian crossing the gym carrying a ladder and the solitary female student walking laps while listening to her AirPods provide no pressure. Pinke describes a more attentive audience.

“USA basketball is watching.” Swish.

Pinke rests the success of the squad on Thornton’s next free throw.

“The whole team’s depending on you,” Pinke says. “Give us a shot.”

The ball bounces off the backboard, touches the rim and falls through.

Into the Upper Echelon

Mike Beardsley started as a student working four hours a week for the Arizona adaptive athletics department in 2009. His weekly hours increased to 10, and then 20. He became program coordinator and assistant coach for wheelchair basketball in 2014 and took over the wheelchair basketball program from coach Derek Brown in 2019.

Beardsley’s first year transitioned the team from a mix of community and student-athletes to a fully collegiate program.

“The year I took over, we scrapped together eight guys,” Beardsley said.

Beardsley wants to be able to develop Paralympic athletes. He says a national championship would be nice.

He focuses on empowering players to use their leadership and developing Arizona’s reputation as part of the upper echelon of wheelchair basketball programs.

“I don’t really set goals,” Beardsley said. “I let the players do that.”

This year’s team set three: 20 wins, eight hours of community service by each player and a national championship.

“Oh, we’re definitely in contention,” Pinke said of their title shot in March.

A Small Group from All Over

“You look like a basketball player,” Beardsley told Pinke.

Beardsley saw Pinke working out and invited him to fill an empty chair at practice. He joined the team as a walk-on. Now he’s one of three captains, along with Thornton and senior Michael Seo.

Pinke enrolled at Arizona to join the adaptive track team while pursuing a graduate degree in Architecture. He spent four years on the University of North Dakota football team – three as a tight end and on special teams and the final as a team captain in a wheelchair after a skiing accident.

He pointed out that the substantial number of players on a football roster creates a different dynamic than the small group that makes a basketball team.

The 2022 Arizona squad includes 14 players from eight states and two foreign countries.

“The best part is the locker room,” Pinke said.

They’re My Brothers

Monday’s practice started with junior Justyn Newman catching lobs near the basket, putting up shots and looking for the next incoming pass.

His teammates wheeled around the court, called out “Jay!” and arched the ball toward the big waiting down low.

If a pass threatened to miss Newman’s range, he clamped down on one wheel with one hand and stretched up and out with the other hand, lifting the other wheel off the court before calmly slamming back to the court and lofting a shot.

Newman and his mother knew Arizona was the right fit after traveling from Kansas for his second-to-last recruiting visit. The initial bond he felt with the coaches now encompasses the entire team.

“I’m a family guy,” Newman said. “I didn’t want to go far away, but I have another family here. I don’t really classify it as a team. They’re my brothers.”

Garnett Silver Hall, a junior from California, used the words home, community, culture, camaraderie and support before mentioning the gym equipment and trainer for students with disabilities or the opportunity to get his education.

Seth Haynes, a freshman from Texas, said the team hangs out after practice, talking sports and playing NBA 2K together.

Haynes said a recent recruit from his home state echoed the current players’ sentiment: “He saw that we’re like a family.”

We Can Make You Better

Thornton, a junior from California, considered the University of Missouri and Auburn University before choosing Arizona because of finances and facilities.

“I have no regrets whatsoever for the decision I made,” Thornton said.

Thornton dreams of being a Paralympian. Learning under Beardsley moves him toward that goal.

Thornton said his coach told him, “You’re a good shooter. We can make you better.”

The two reconstructed Thornton’s shot, working over a semester to make him more accurate.

Blaise Mutware, a junior who also plays for the Canadian men’s national wheelchair basketball team, played in major international tournaments in Dubai and Japan. He uses his college experience – hopefully followed by a pro career in Europe – to advise younger players still learning the game.

“I get to work on my leadership role,” Mutware said.

Dylan Zander moved with his family from Michigan to Phoenix before his freshman year. He played in the junior division for seven years before the pandemic halted his team’s operation in 2020. He picked up the sport again when offered to play in Tucson.

Now he values playing every day with experienced veterans like Mutware and fast players like Thornton.

“It ups your game 1000%,” Zander said.

Mike Lucas chose to move to Tucson from Spokane, Washington, to start college this season.

Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, about a half-hour south of Spokane, boasts the only other college wheelchair basketball program west of Texas.

Lucas sought out the move to Tucson because of the competitive environment within the team.

“I’ve looked at this school since freshman year,” Lucas said.

Increased Attention

Arizona recruited Lucas from Eastern Washington territory. They returned to Cheney on Oct. 22 to play in the Eagles’ first tournament as hosts.

“We went up there to try and support their growth,” Beardsley said. “To show their administration more competitive basketball.”

Eastern Washington coach David Evjen said pitting his team against Arizona at Reese Court drew increased attention.

Evjen noted that other students see the team practice in a gym used for P.E. classes during the day and intramurals in the evenings. Their six-player roster does not allow for full five-on-five scrimmages unless volunteers, managers or students in an adaptive P.E. class fill chairs.

Athletes from other sports watched the tournament and saw what wheelchair players can do with the ball, how often they shoot from behind the three-point line and how teams set picks to create space.

“They got to see us five-on-five,” Evjen said. “They didn’t realize how physical the game was. This is still basketball.”

Evjen acknowledged that the scores favored Arizona, but hosting a collegiate team for the first time – one the Eagles see as a partner to bolster competition out west – highlighted the program to administrators and all athletes in their third season at the college level.

“Props to U of A for their support,” Evjen said. “We could show the NWBA and the rest of the college division we are legit.”

Culture is Clicking

Nine players participated in Arizona’s Monday morning practice – one more than the number on Beardsley’s first full roster four years ago.

Even with five players out sick or yet to return from Thanksgiving break, Arizona ran rotating four-on-four scrimmages, make-it-take-it three-on-three drills and small group shooting competitions.

Nine wheelchairs sped, swerved, stopped abruptly, or clattered together. Possessions began like chess matches, with many pieces moving at once. Squads probed and countered like agile offensive and defensive linemen creating or protecting space.

The ball arched, zipped and floated as players found open teammates.

“Right now, team culture is clicking really, really good,” Beardsley said.

Arizona finished fifth in the 2021 Toyota NWBA Collegiate Wheelchair Basketball National Championships. The 2022 team is halfway to their 20-win goal after opening against NWBA Division 1 and 2 teams, visiting Eastern Washington, sweeping two games each against Missouri, and tournament hosts Auburn in early December.

Arizona’s next college opponents will travel to the desert to play Feb. 24 and 25, 2023 – the only time Wildcat basketball fans will see the NWBA Intercollegiate Division competition in Tucson this season.

Leann Smith, who attended Monday’s practice as an American Sign Language interpreter for Kerwin Haake, a sophomore from Kentucky, confirmed herself as a basketball fan.

Her observation after rotating with another interpreter assisting Haake for the past two seasons: “They are as aggressive and into it as any able-bodied person. They love it.”

Haake welcomed people who don’t follow wheelchair basketball to experience the sport live.

“It’s a great experience to come watch,” Haake said through Smith. “[Students] can always ask us [about basketball], too, if they see us around campus.”

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