Junior Aimee Vargas has begun playing her second season with the Jr. Wheelin’ Jazz basketball team. Most basketball fans are familiar with the NBA’s Utah Jazz, but most are not familiar with NWBA’s Jr. Wheelin’ Jazz (www.jr.wheelinjazz.com). NWBA stands for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. The Jr. Wheelin’ Jazz is ranked in the top 25 of all Jr. Division teams in the NWBA and they’re headed into their second season of national competition after winning 7th place in Denver last year. Recently the Jr. Wheelin’ Jazz played during half-time at the Utah Jazz exhibition game on October 7.
The Jr. Wheelin' Jazz consists of players ages 13 to 21 from Ogden down to Springville. The players are picked from a handful of youth that have been participating on local teams (Salt Lake and Clearfield) for the past few years. The three year goal is to build the program into two separate teams with both competing nationally.
This year’s team members include Sam Blakley, Spencer Heslop, Aimee Vargas, Marshall Lindsay, Jason Hall, Ryan Nelson, Justin Rosvall, Dallin Eggers and Eliza McIntosh. To qualify, players must have a lower-extremity disability which could mean partial or complete paralysis, the shortening of a limb, or the partial or complete loss of, or part of a leg.
No matter what physical circumstance, these players are determined to prove to themselves that they can achieve their goals; Eliza McIntosh, 16, is one of them.
McIntosh enjoys competing in practically anything and says that basketball gives her the opportunity to enhance her abilities, stay in shape, and become friends with other athletes.
“Anyone can become a Boozer with enough dedication and practice. Just because I have Segmental Spinal Digenesis, (SSD is a rare congenital abnormality in which a segment of the spine and spinal cord fails to develop) it doesn’t mean I can’t compete. It just means I compete in a different way. I play in a different type of wheelchair than I use every day. It has slanted wheels that allow me to turn faster. And, if you think about it, even Michael Jordan can’t play like I do! I mean, he didn’t get to put on different legs for his basketball games,” said McIntosh.
The Jr. Wheelin' Jazz has a two-fold mission: To allow those that are differently able to participate at a high level of competition and further their athletic pursuits; and, to be role models, peers to others differently able and to let them know that life isn’t over because of an injury or birth defect. The Jr. Wheelin’ Jazz also speaks at public events, such as school assemblies.
Marilyn Blakley takes the reigns as head coach with Layne Mangum, Alma Stewart, and Craig Johnson assisting. Layne and Alma have been playing wheelchair basketball for many years and Layne is the current head coach of the Wheelin' Jazz Adult Team. Craig comes from Minnesota where he coached the juniors.
Blakley’s son participates with the junior and adult team.
“I’m coaching wheelchair basketball because I like to be involved with my son. Sam decided to try wheelchair basketball about three years ago which meant that I would be driving him to practices. About a year ago, I was approached to see if I would coach his national team, and I said sure. I love sports and have participated competitively most of my life, so I thought this would be a great opportunity,” said head coach Blakley.
“Having my mom as a coach; it’s different but in a good way. She probably pushes me harder than most since I am her son, but it helps me stay on task and behave,” said Sam Blakley.
Assistant coach Layne Mangum says, “The best part of coaching is the satisfaction of development. It's all about attitude and positive thinking. Being a coach allows me to shape the future of these young athletes. When the kids come to practice, they learn that hard work, determination, full effort and heart will pay off over time. Having the strength to keep pushing when you think you've pushed your last push. Only then do you find out what is inside of you. Only then do you break out of your limitations and realize the potential that is waiting to escape.”
Just like in traditional basketball, wheelchair basketball also has to abide by rules and requirements. For example, the height of the wheelchair seat can’t be more than 21 inches off the ground.
The primary difference between traditional basketball and wheelchair basketball is the dribble. Wheelchair basketball athletes have to find a way to dribble the ball down the court. Players are only allowed to touch their wheels twice before dribbling. No rule exists as to how many times athletes push their chair, just as long as they meet the requirement. In addition, wheelchair players are allowed to pivot their wheelchair in place by turning the wheels in opposite directions. It is a violation if a player leans forward or to the side so that any part of the wheelchair’s footrest or the player’s feet touches the floor when they are about to shoot or retrieve the ball.
Another variation between the NBA and the NWBA is that as an alternative to ticket sales funding the majority of the team’s needs, including travel, the Jr. Wheelin’ Jazz relies on volunteers and public donations. To donate go to: http://donate2jr.wheelinjazz.com.
The Jr. Wheelin’ Jazz will have its first tournament of the year at the Copperview Recreational Center, 8446 S Harrison Street Midvale, on Friday, November 19, through Sunday, November 21. Six games are scheduled for the Jr. Tournament. Two games are on Friday beginning at 5:30 pm, three games on Saturday beginning at 11 am, and one game Sunday morning. Admission is free but donations are accepted.
Currently, the Jr. Wheelin’ Jazz is seeking volunteers to help facilitate their annual celebrity game that takes place in April. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to become a volunteer.