“Is Tony talking trash again?” Josh Ford smiles as he strides onto the court for some pickup basketball in Gym 1 of the HPER Building at the University of Arkansas. “Tony” refers to Tony Boyd, who is warming up with just enough of a grin on his face to make everyone wonder what might be up his sleeve. Elsewhere on the court, other players start to converge and get organized for the upcoming game. Alex Shell and Ryan Grant practice layups, while Ashley Hunter ties her shoe. The players give welcoming hand-slaps to one another, and Hunter issues the call: “Ball in!”
With that, 40 wheels whoosh onto the court, and the game is in full swing.
Trying something new
Most of the players on the court happened upon the game while they were in the University Recreation facility for other reasons. The first time he noticed the wheelchair game, Shell, a junior philosophy major from Benton, was intrigued.
“I had to try it,” he said when he saw chairs rolling around on the court rather than the familiar two-legged players.
“I came here to play basketball anyway, so I hopped in,” agreed Grant, a junior psychology major from Joplin, Missouri.
The two friends who come to the HPER Building regularly to utilize the Fitness Center and Climbing Wall decided to join the weekly pickup wheelchair basketball game one Wednesday, despite never having played the game before, much less ever being in a wheelchair. And just like that, they were hooked.
“The first time we played, we talked about it for days,” Shell says. “It makes you think about the game differently.”
Before long, he started getting calluses on his thumbs and re-developed his shot.
“I drive to the basket more,” he muses, considering the adjustments he’s made to his game.
“It’s a lot of give and go,” Grant adds. “The more you can move the ball, the better.”
Ryan agrees that not having the use of his legs requires a bit of strategizing.
“Defense becomes easier, in a way,” he notes, adding with a conceding grin, “those are Rob’s signature moves.”
Robert Harrison, who has coordinated the University Recreation program for the past few years, accepts the compliment readily. He knows the effectiveness of a good screen.
Clank! One of those screens hits home as Boyd is stopped from his run to the basket, and Ford has to look elsewhere to pass.
Don’t underestimate the physicality of the game just because it’s seated, all of the players agree.
“It’s a lot of cardio,” Boyd says, “I’m sweating by the end of the hour.”
Shell agrees that shooting is one of the more challenging differences in the sport. Being seated results in a greater distance between the ball and the goal, as well as limits the use of lower-body muscle groups that players rely on to shoot.
“I felt my shoulders the next day,” Boyd laughs.
A welcoming environment
While spirited competitiveness may manifest during the regular Wednesday night game, players agree that what draws them in is a feeling of fellowship.
“There’s a lot of good sportsmanship on the court,” Grant says.
Boyd agrees. “I come because it’s fun. It’s a nice place to spend an hour. No judgment, a lot of camaraderie.”
Then with a smile, he adds, “I can even get some shots off once in a while.”
Boyd is a regular participant now, but he acknowledges that it took a step outside of his comfort zone to get started. He quickly follows up, however, with how included he felt from the beginning, and how much fun he has had since he started playing the game.
Cody Collins, a junior recreation and sport management major from Tyler, Texas, credits Harrison with making him feel welcome.
“I was a little hesitant because it was new,” he says. “Rob tries to explain that we’re all learning, developing skills.”
Collins and Ford, a senior kinesiology major from Bentonville, are UREC student-employees who work with Harrison to facilitate the weekly program. Ford notes that the fun of the game is a draw that keeps players coming back.
“If we can show them that they can do it, they are having a good time,” he says. “It’s the same skills, they just have to use them in a new way.”
“The best part is the people,” says Hunter, a senior elementary education major from Fritch, Texas. “There is a consistent group who comes every week, but also a lot of new people. The best part is developing those relationships.”
The program has served as a healthy forum for students to play together, but also for students to interact with faculty and staff. Grant regularly plays with Buster McCall, his University Perspectives instructor from freshman year.
“I hadn’t seen him since last year when I took the class,” he notes, adding that being able to follow up with McCall was a nice outcome of participating in a simple recreational activity.
Tony Boyd is also a University of Arkansas staff member, having worked at Printing Services since 2000. He enjoys interacting with students and watching them try out their wheels.
“To see them lose their apprehensions, get drawn into the game and start having fun is gratifying.”
Boyd notes that he now thinks differently about disabilities, particularly the notion that a specific disability in one area does not mean that the concept of “disabled” applies to the whole person. Rather, all individuals are made up of diverse levels of ability in many different areas. He refers to an exhibition game against the Northwest Arkansas Wild Wheels, a competitive wheelchair basketball team that plays regional exhibition and competitive games around the area.
“The game against the Wild Wheels was an eye-opener towards differently-abled individuals. We thought we were good, but they put us in our place,” Boyd says. “There is a lot we can do, no matter how abled we are.”
While the game itself may be simple, the players acknowledge an expansion of their ideas regarding the concepts of ability and differences. Harrison considers the weekly pickup game as broadening participants’ viewpoints in other areas of ability consideration, not just sport. “I didn’t feel comfortable talking to a person with a disability before” is one sentence that he hears frequently. He likes the way that the game puts people of different ability levels on the same team with a common goal. “When they see someone different, they don’t mind. They just want to challenge each other.”
Harrison does not want participants to think that the sport is only for persons with disabilities. On this particular evening, Harrison, having been born with cerebral palsy, is the only player who uses a wheelchair in everyday life. However, he emphasizes that the sport is for everyone.
“In the end, it’s about having fun,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not.”
And for Alex Shell, that’s the exact reason he continues to play. “Honestly, it’s just so much fun.”
Drop-in wheelchair basketball is played Wednesday nights from 5 to 6 p.m. during the academic semesters in Gym 1 of the HPER Building. All ability levels are welcome.