COLUMBIA — At 7 a.m. Monday morning, the basketball courts at the MU Student Recreational Complex are fairly empty. A handful of students are shooting around on some of the baskets, but most of the noise is coming from Courts 9 and 10.
The MU Wheelchair Basketball team is hard at work. The team is 30 minutes into its first morning practice of the week, and Brendan Downes can't miss.
He snaps the net on a 17-foot jump shot on the far end of Court 10 before starting a scrimmaging drill and making a 3-pointer. On the next possession he glides to the basket and puts in a flashy reverse layup.
After the drill, he moves to the adjacent Court 9 and practices 17-foot bank shots on the shooting machine. He knocks down six in a row on the device that automatically rebounds the ball before he moves behind the 3-point line.
But Downes never rejoins the drills. He unstraps himself from his basketball wheelchair, switches over to his off-court chair and joins the coaching staff on the sidelines.
Now a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in education administration, Downes is no longer a member of the team. After playing his first four years of intercollegiate wheelchair basketball at the University of Arizona and his final year at Missouri in 2011, he has remained with the team as an assistant coach.
"It's been a lot of fun coaching the guys I played with last year for the most part," Downes said.
Brendan Downes came to Missouri to play his final year with his younger brother, Connor Downes, who is a junior and one of the team's leading scorers.
The team is funded through a specific line-item in the state budget that was created by former state senator Chuck Graham of Columbia 12 years ago. The team is a member of the Central Intercollegiate Division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
This year, Brendan Downes continues to help both his brother and his former teammates develop.
As Brendan Downes watches from the sidelines, Connor Downes races past him down the sideline before knocking down a baseline jumper. Connor Downes said that even though the two brothers sometimes butt heads, they have had a good relationship as player and coach. Brendan Downes coached his brother when he was on the USA Under-20 Team during the inaugural Australian Youth Paralympic Games in 2009.
"His wealth of knowledge of the game helped me develop, and helped the team, too, because he's an excellent basketball player and has really good court awareness and court vision," Connor Downes said.
As a former player, Brendan Downes adds an additional layer of experience to the coaching staff, led by head coach Ron Lykins, who has never played wheelchair basketball.
"(Brendan) knows the angle where we come from on the court," Connor Downes said. "He's able to bring that to the coaching staff when we're trying to figure out how to run plays or attack certain teams or something like that."
Brendan Downes, who tried out for the 2012 national wheelchair basketball team along with his brother, is considering getting back onto the players' side of the sport.
"I think it's brought back more of an itch to play basketball more than anything," Brendan Downes said. "It's so new to me not being out there on the college division, basically coaching the guys I've been playing against the last five years."
Brendan Downes said he's considering signing a contract to play professionally in Europe next year. He also has his sights set on playing for the national team in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
As practice draws to a close, Brendan Downes wheels off the court to give a ride to his former teammate Greg Angers, who was in town visiting for the day and needs to catch a shuttle to the airport. Brendan Downes is no longer bringing the ball up the court or scoring points, but he's still one of the guys.
"It's been a really cool, positive experience with him as a coach for me, and for the team especially he helps tremendously," Connor Downes said.
The MU Wheelchair Basketball team plays next against the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday at noon and 1:30 p.m. at the MU Student Recreational Complex.