Tide wheelchair squads compete despite disability

Published: March 25, 2007  |  Source: montgomeryadvertiser.com
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TUSCALOOSA — Much like University of Alabama men’s basketball coach Mark Gottfried and women’s coach Stephany Smith, Brent Hardin scours the country looking for only the best basketball players to wear the uniform of the Crimson Tide.

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“It’s scary, how detailed recruiting is these days,” Hardin said. “We know kids in middle school that we keep an eye on. We have kids come to our camp here in Tuscaloosa every summer. And there are national tournaments every year that we make sure we’re seen at.”

There is one major difference between the athletes Gottfried and Smith recruit, and those Hardin goes after: Hardin’s athletes compete in wheelchairs.

Hardin is the director of the University of Alabama Disability Sports, and heads up the four-year-old Alabama women’s wheelchair basketball team and the year-old men’s team.

Not recognized by the NCAA, intercollegiate wheelchair basketball falls under the auspices of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. The Alabama women’s team (21-9) recently finished third in the NWBA Women’s National Championships in Warm Springs, Ga. The men’s team (13-16) was in the men’s College Nationals last week in Edinboro, Pa.

The University of Alabama is one of only three schools to have both men’s and women’s intercollegiate wheelchair basketball and one of only 10 with wheelchair basketball at all.

Starting a wheelchair basketball program was Hardin’s vision when he was hired to teach kinesiology. President Robert Witt embraced that vision.

“Dr. Witt was at (the University of) Texas-Arlington before coming here,” said Hardin, a 40-year-old native of Bowling Green, Ky. “UTA has a long history of wheelchair basketball. They are the defending national champs. He got the vision. He understood what we wanted to do. And that opened doors for us.”

Hardin is able to offer scholarship money that goes beyond what is offered by the government for students with disabilities, but just like coaches in most sports on campus, he has to put together the best financial package possible to compete against the other college wheelchair programs.

“We don’t have full rides (full scholarships), but we’re close,” Hardin said. “Texas-Arlington is the only program with full scholarships for wheelchair sports.”

Because there are so few college wheelchair teams, teams travel to be able to play multiple games on weekends. Playing two games a day is not unusual, and the Tide men recently hosted a tournament that included teams from Texas-Arlington, Missouri and Arizona before traveling to a tournament at the University of Illinois.

“Wheelchair sports is a sub-culture that is out there,” Hardin said. “I started dreaming about this program when I went to my first national junior wheelchair tournament and saw hundreds of kids there, in chairs, going at it.”

“There were so many great kids and great athletes,” Hardin said, “and I realized there just weren’t enough programs for these kids to go to college and keep playing.”

Hardin was working on a master’s degree at the University of Georgia, teaching and coaching high school basketball at Athens Academy when he took an adapted sports class. That exposed him to wheelchair athletics.

“I realized this is what I should be doing. I like basketball and I like working with kids with disabilities, and started getting involved in the subculture of wheelchair sports.

“My problem is I want to provide opportunities for all these kids. I’m trying to find jobs as managers and helpers for the kids that aren’t elite-level athletes, and maybe even expanding to include a JV team or even an intramural league for students.

“But it’s not fair not to make this an elite-level program.”

The women’s team has four players with international experience: Mary Allison Milford, Desiree Miller and Alana Nichols all competed for the United States national team in the recent Osaka Cup tournament in Japan, while Karla Tritten competed for the Canadian national team.

“I was recruited by Arizona, Illinois and Alabama,” said Miller, a sophomore from Seattle, Wash., who has spina bifida. “Really, my plan was to go to Arizona, but when I played in a tournament in California and all these coaches started recruiting me, I realized there were a lot more options than I thought.”

Hardin’s first signee was Milford, an Arkansas native who suffered a spinal cord injury in an automobile accident when she was 3 years old.

“I’m just an athlete at heart,” said Milford. “I played all the way through high school. In fact, I was the only athlete in my high school to sign to play with a Division I school.

“To be a scholarship athlete at the University of Alabama is an honor.”

By Ray Melick
The Birmingham News