ARLINGTON — For the first time in three years, the University of Texas at Arlington men’s wheelchair basketball team will host the sport’s pinnacle event, the 2014 national intercollegiate wheelchair basketball championship.The timing couldn’t be better: UT Arlington is the No. 1 seed in the eight-team tournament, which opens Thursday and runs through Saturday. The Movin’ Mavs also have venue bragging rights. The third-place and championship games will be played at the upscale College Park Center, 601 Spaniolo Drive.All other matches will be played at the Maverick Activities Center, 500 W. Nedderman Drive.“We got the 2011 championship because another team dropped out,” said UT Arlington coach Doug Garner. “We’re lucky to be hosting championships this close together. We won’t be back here for another eight years.”Garner hopes to see plenty of fans in the stands and some home court advantage for the Mavs. Admission to the games is free.There are about 30 wheelchair basketball programs associated with colleges and universities, Garner said, and they are made up of an incredibly diverse field of athletes. That includes some of the 19 student-athletes on UT Arlington’s men’s and women’s teams.“We recruit from all over the world,” Garner said. “We have had players from Germany, Venezuela, Austria, Australia — and we have a player coming in from Egypt next fall.”Among these athletes are John McPhail, a junior social work major from Sydney, and Andreas Kraft, a junior international finance major from Vienna.McPhail played on the Australia men’s national wheelchair basketball team that won the gold medal at the 2010 wheelchair basketball world championship.Kraft is also a member of UT Arlington’s wheelchair tennis team and is an internationally ranked swimmer who will represent UT Arlington in several tennis and swimming events this spring.UT Arlington’s women’s wheelchair team is new this year.“It’s been a struggle, but we’ve got eight to 10 girls that are talking to us about coming next year,” Garner said.There are five players on the current team, including Morgan Wood, a sophomore pre-nursing major who transferred from the University of Memphis last fall. She committed to UT Arlington after a summer wheelchair basketball camp.“It’s really taken a while to grow this interest up to our juniors, because wheelchair basketball isn’t offered in high school,” Garner said. “The whole paralympic movement is relatively young. It’s taken a lot of interest on a lot of levels to get female athletes involved.”Wheelchair basketball players now routinely get scholarships and financial aid through the UT Arlington program, Garner said, a definite improvement over his early coaching experiences when athletes had to pay their own way to the Paralympics.“I’ve been coaching wheelchair basketball since 1992, and I’ve been here since 2002,” Garner said. “We didn’t really know back in the ’90s that it was a new sport; we were just doing sports.”During that time, Garner said he has witnessed a growing acceptance of sports for people with disabilities.“This year there will be 14 hours of coverage on TV for the Paralympics,” he said. “All the visibility for veterans’ programs out there has really generated interest in disability sports.”The Arlington program has one military veteran on its collegiate team and four veterans on the roster of their community team.Now, all the Movin’ Mavs need is a loud, proud crowd of fans and backers at the games. It should be a slam-dunk, what with free public admission and the passion of the sport.“Most people say, ‘This is not what I expected,’ ” Garner said of first-time fan reactions. “It’s a very fast-paced, physical game.”Read more about the games and players at www.uta.edu/news/releases/2014/02/2014-nwba-championship.php.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657 Twitter: @shirljinkins