Charlotte Rollin' Hornets sending four top-four seeded teams to National Wheelchair Hoops Tournament
By Steve Goldberg
Wichita - It's not just the NCAA hosting basketball tournaments as March rolls into May. Founded just a few years after the NBA, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association literally rolls into Wichita, Kansas to determine its national champions across five divisions, 90 teams and more than a thousand athletes.
The Charlotte Rollin' Hornets will be represented in four of the five with two junior and two adult teams. All are top-four seeds in their respective tournaments. The Prep and Varsity junior teams are both ranked second in the country. The adult D3 squad is seeded third and the D2 team fourth. A women's team, which will compete in Akron, Ohio later in April is ranked third in that division.
"We've always had success on the court and at least one of our teams finishing in the top ten in the country," said Mike Godsey, coach of the Prep team and one of the founders of Abilities Unlimited of the Carolinas, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization which was formed in 2005 by three fathers of physically disabled children in the greater Charlotte area to help grow the junior program, which started under the Adaptive Sports and Adventures program at the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation.
The makeup of the adult and junior teams is diverse with twenty Black, Hispanic and Asian players across the various team rosters. That's an inherent commitment within a sport that represents the 1 in 5 Americans with a disability and evolved from rehabilitation exercise for injured soldiers returning from World War II to providing recreational and competitive opportunity in sports.
Wheelchair basketball has been strong in the Queen City well before that on the adult side, going back to the 70's with the appropriately monikered Carolina Tarwheels. In the 80's, there were enough players that a second team, the Carolina Cyclones was started.
The adult teams adopted the Hornets name shortly after the NBA came to town in 1988, changing that to the Bobcats when the league returned and eventually back to the Rollin' Hornets. Multiple national champion trophies have come back to Charlotte. The D2 team won its first national title in 1996. Most recently, the Prep team won the 2018 championship.
The Rollin' Hornets have sent 21 athletes to college to play wheelchair basketball and another three on wheelchair track scholarships to schools including the University of Alabama, University of Illinois, and University of Texas-Arlington.
The chance to play in front of college coaches who might grow that number is not lost on junior players like Preston Howell IV, age 17, and Sadie Absher on the varsity team. Both are students at South Point High School in Gaston County.
Howell, whose family first learned that wheelchair basketball existed about ten years ago when another parent approached his mom at his sister's soccer game, was drawn to the game instantly. Admitting how difficult it was at the beginning, he grew to be the Prep division MVP at the 2017 and 2018 tournaments. He's also playing on the adult D2 team this year.
"I hope to play collegiate wheelchair basketball in the future. Down the road, I have Paralympic dreams."
Absher, 16, has been playing since she was 8. She dabbled in track and other sports but says basketball is her favorite. "I love the contact of it and the aggressiveness because my siblings have always done that (in their sports) so I always wanted to do something like that."
Her older brother is an offensive lineman being wooed by big name ACC schools and her sister excels at softball. "It makes me more motivated and inspires me to do good because I want to be like my brother and get recruited by colleges. It gives me opportunity."
Eight players and two coaches have represented on USA national teams, including Ryan Nieswander and Bailey Moody on the USA team rosters last summer for the delayed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games where the men won gold and the women silver medals, and Gail Gaeng from the gold medal women's team at Rio 2016.
But this week is all about national glory.
"It's huge," said Cameron Ruis of the Prep team's #2 ranking. "But we have to get the job done. It's the nationals."
Just 12-years-old, Ruis has already been playing wheelchair basketball for nine years – "As far back as I remember," - and is doing double duty with the Prep and Varsity teams. "It's fun. You feel welcome and you make new friends for life," says the Marvin Ridge Middle Schooler.
"The sport has changed my life," says Howell, "and 've seen it change my friend's lives."