When you think of elite college basketball programs the list is well known. For the men names like UCLA, Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Indiana come to mind. For the women you have Connecticut, Tennessee, and Stanford. But if I told you that the University of Texas-Arlington has won seven national basketball championships you might challenge my data. But it is indisputable. The Movin Mavs have won the big prize seven times since 1991.
The Movin Mav’s are one of the premier basketball teams year in and year out in the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Association. Outstanding players are produced regularly from this program but most importantly their kids do something else. They graduate.
The team is now under the watchful eye of head coach Doug Garner but it was the vision of the late Jim Hayes, himself confined to a wheelchair, that was the genesis for this remarkable program. Over thirty years ago Hayes began championing that sports for the disabled be included on campuses, and UTA has become a leader in this effort.
I was at UT-Arlington recently to help coach in the annual Movin Mav’s Wheelchair Basketball Camp. Participants were athletes who had cerebral palsy, spina bifida, birth defects, or had suffered spinal cord trauma from accidents. But after meeting the campers and staff I learned they were far from disabled.
Their faces were covered with a black smear, a product of their hands getting dirty from maneuvering their chairs. It took on the look of war paint as they competed on the floor. Wheelchair basketball requires getting your chair to high speeds and then having the skill to stop, start, and change directions abruptly. There are also collisions as defenders block offensive moves, and offenses use pick and roll strategies to create scoring opportunities. Shooting requires a deft touch and because you lack the ability to use your legs you need a strong and fit upper body.
Girls and boys compete together effectively and the chatter is non-stop as defenders work together to stymie offensive sets. There are fast breaks, great ball movement, long three point shots, and even remarkable physical feats. Players doing 360 chair spins to get free of a defender or a scorer penetrating the defense and then getting his chair up on one wheel to get a better angle for his shot. You are allowed two wheel spins before having to dribble, and in the open floor a skilled player can maneuver his or her chair at high speed with only their hips doing the work.
But it wasn’t the play that distinguished this camp. It was the core messages that were being given to the participants by the camp staff, a staff that consisted mainly of Movin Mav’s players. After each morning and afternoon session Coach Garner would request that his players share their experiences with these campers. They talked about studying hard, eating right, how to manage your time, and train more effectively. But on my last day there they spoke about obligation. In short the Movin Mav’s made it clear that everyone in the room was a role model.
One staffer remarked that the entire campus knew who the Movin Mav’s were. Coach Garner backed that up with a campus survey that said that 87% of UTA students knew about the Movin Mav’s. The players talked about how everyone knows when the kid in the wheelchair is in class, but more importantly they knew when he was not in class. They talked about being active and involved on campus and in the community. In short being a Movin Mav required extraordinary commitment. It was a special group.
It became apparent to me that this camp was more than just teaching the participants how to be better basketball players. It was also more than a venue to recruit more athletes to UTA. It was about sharing life lessons, building confidence, and nurturing leadership. These campers were being given expectations on how they should live their lives, and that their goals and dreams were no less attainable than those of an able bodied person.
Because these young people had already faced adversity it seemed completely logical that they would be not just good role models, but great ones. As I watched them play basketball the strong drive they all had was never more apparent than when they would get toppled over in their chair. They would feverishly contort themselves onto their stomachs so they could push themselves upward and get back into the action. Equally impressive was how quickly teammates and opponents rushed to assist. This was sports at its essence. Strong competition with good sportsmanship as a major component.
As I had a chance to visit with these remarkable athletes I would learn about their ambitions. For many a Movin Mav scholarship was their only hope for a college education. Some of the players were injured in service to our nation. With all the money that impacts college athletics it was inspirational to see these young men competing in their sport for the joy it brings, for the chance to earn a diploma, represent their school, and perhaps even their country.
You won’t find the Movin Mav’s on ESPN. In fact many states don’t even offer youth programs for wheelchair basketball or any other sports for the disabled. All I can say is that is a tragedy not confined to the physically challenged.
If you want to see high level college sports in its purest form check out www.utamovinmavs.com. Seven national championships should be proof enough.