Roll in and sink that shot —Wheelin’ Jazz a ‘very unique team’
Feb 17, 2020 02:48PM
By Greg James
The men and women on the Wheelin’ Jazz take adversity head on as they attempt to qualify again for the wheelchair basketball national tournament. (Photo courtesy Wheelin’ Jazz.)
By Greg James | [email protected]
A group of athletes have grabbed support from each other while climbing to the top of the national wheelchair basketball standings.
Each player came to be a member of the Wheelin’ Jazz team from a different path. One was shot in the chest, one lost a leg in a car accident, one fell nearly 40 feet and one was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident.
“We have a very unique team,” former Paralympian and team member Jeff Griffin said.
The Wheelin’ Jazz are a nonprofit organization currently ranked eighth overall in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. The team provides much more to its players than trophies for winning contests.
“There are more than 2,000 wheelchair basketball players in the United States,” Griffin said. “It all started when veterans started coming home from World War II. There are junior, pee wee and elite division teams like this one.”
The team was organized in the mid ’80s by director Mike Schlappi. He has been a member of four Paralympic wheelchair basketball teams and was a member of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The team travels to participate in wheelchair tournaments around the country. They are members of division one in the NWBA, which includes 20 teams, a majority of those teams have NBA connections.
“We wanted to expand on what Mike has built,” Griffin said. “It gives an avenue to help others that have had spinal cord injuries or physical disabilities such as physical, social and emotional therapy. This is one way to do that, to help them on their road to recovery.”
The team has been ranked in the top 10 nationally for more than 25 years. Last season, the team were ranked third and came within one shot of advancing to the championship game.
“I am a competitive guy,” Griffin said. “I would love to have a national championship here with the Jazz. Most people do not know that most NBA teams have a wheelchair team, too.”
The team is made up of 15 players, including Taylorsville High School student teacher Amanda King, the only female on the team. Players practice once a week and will play approximately 20 games. The Wheelin’ Jazz could then qualify for the division championship.
“It would be cool to partner with the Jazz and play a doubleheader with the Stars,” Griffin said. “That is something we are working on. We may be in wheelchairs, but we still feel the same as everyone else. We have dreams and aspirations just like everyone else.”
Schlappi spent time in Phoenix and Los Angeles. When he moved to Utah, he knew this area was in need of a team.
“This is not professional sports, but we care,” Schlappi said. “We hope we inspire a lot of people. Sometimes when you are disabled, you need a role model. We all get each other. There is a whole lot more than what most people realize. We want to be that inspiration. If we can help someone, then it is all worth it.”
Running the team is expensive. The proper wheelchair alone can be more than $3,500. Team members are currently raising funds to help curb travel costs and purchase the proper equipment.
“This gives me a community that I can feel accepted in,” said team member Ryan Nelson. “In public, I can be treated differently, but here I am just one of the guys.”
“We invite anyone that is in a wheelchair to come out,” said team member Ryan Nelson. “They may not play at this level, but they can still be welcome. They are still important to all of us. They can be part of a team,] but a part of the community. This is one of the greatest groups of men and women that just happen to be disabled.”