There’s more than one national championship title on the line for North Carolina this week. While the North Carolina men’s basketball team will square up with Villanova Monday night for the NCAA title, the Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets, a wheelchair basketball team, will compete in the 2016 National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament Thursday in Louisville.
The Rollin’ Hornets A team is ranked No. 5 in the country in the Division III bracket and is one of 88 teams across four divisions competing in the tournament.
They have two junior teams and two adult teams in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA). The A team and its two junior team counterparts will compete in their respective brackets at the Kentucky Exposition Center Thursday.
Last month, the A team won the conference tournament in Spartanburg. The eight-member team plays with 10-foot rims, 20 minute halves and follows NCAA rules with a few minor adjustments.
There are two major differences between wheelchair basketball and regular basketball:
– Players must dribble once for every two pushes and can’t use their legs to leverage jumping into shots.
– There’s also no lateral movement in a wheelchair so it’s all about positioning, teamwork and communication.
Coach Bob Green says there are a lot of misconceptions about wheelchair basketball that the Rollin’ Hornets hope to disprove.
“Most people when they think about a wheelchair, they think about an old man pushing in a grocery store,” said Green. “We’re very, very competitive and the competition can be fierce.”
Fierce is an understatement: Players popped tires and flipped wheelchairs at Saturday’s practice.
Green encouraged anyone with a permanent lower extremity disability to join one of the Rollin’ Hornets’ four teams next season.
“A lot of the players come because people here can understand their situation,” Green said. “They can be proud of being in a wheelchair.”
In last year’s NWBT, the Rollin’ Hornets fell to Miami — which eventually went on to win the whole thing — and placed 10th overall. This year the Rollin’ Hornets have the help of 21-time All-American and NWBA Hall of Famer Dave Kiley, who is also referred to as “DK” on the court.
Kiley’s 43-year career is marked with Paralympic gold medals and major accolades in wheelchair basketball, track and field, downhill skiing and tennis. He also coached the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team and led them to a world championship.
Kiley, who will be 63 at the end of the month, was described as the Michael Jordan of wheelchair basketball by many on the court Saturday.
“I’ve never been more confident than I am right now — I’ve never been with a team that works this hard or is this focused,” he said.
While Kiley is a key player for the Rollin’ Hornets, it’s not a one-man sport. Players like offensive powerhouse Mike Hudson, or “Hud,” and Tim Caldwell, who played at The University of Texas at Austin, are also leaders on the team.
“It’s about the team that gets better through the tournament,” Kiley told his team. “If you watch the Tar Heels play, they’ve gotten better through the tournament.”
UNC has one more test tonight, and while Kiley isn’t looking too far into the future, he hopes his team can land itself in the final game as well.
Photos: Rollin’ Hornets Facebook page