COLUMBIA — Wheels scratch against the basketball floor as the clock winds down. The buzzer goes off — that's the end of the scrimmage. Practice is over. The team gathers together in the center of the court. Players hold hands and form a circle. In unison, they say, "USA!"
On Monday at the MU Student Recreation Complex, the U.S. Men's Wheelchair Basketball Team practiced for the World Championship, which will begin Saturday and continue through July 14 in Incheon, South Korea. Sixteen teams from around the world will be competing.
Carter Arey was born with a short femur, and his parents elected to have his leg amputated to give him more opportunities with a prosthetic. He played able-bodied sports with a prosthetic but found a new love in wheelchair basketball. He played for MU and has made Team USA two years in a row. This year, he is balancing the team with wedding planning. He and his fiancee plan to marry in September. Read the Missourian and Vox Magazine's past coverage of Arey:
Many of them knew each other before making the team. Going through two rounds of cuts and monthly practices have helped the players bond. As the team looks ahead to future tournaments in 2015 and 2016, head coach Ron Lykins hopes this group of players will stick around.
In lulls between the competitive play on the court, smiles and laughter can be seen and heard. They cheer each other on if they make a good pass or shot — "Attaboy John!" They help one another up if they fall. A sense of familiarity — camaraderie — binds the players.
"These are the best players in the United States, and some of them are the best in the world," Lykins said.
Lykins is also the head coach of the Mizzou Wheelchair Basketball Team and has coached the U.S. Women's team three times before.
"I've been through the pressures of international competition, and what I've learned through those competitions with the women, I can bring back for these guys," Lykins said.
The tryouts for the team took place in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the Olympic Training Center in January. According to players Michael Paye and John Gilbert, about 40 athletes showed up for the Colorado Springs tryouts; only 16 were initially selected. In May, the final squad was narrowed to 12 players.
"We felt like these were the best 12, that make up the best team. They might not be the best players, but they were the right players," Lykins said. "They were the best fit for our team to help us reach our goal."
The only difference between coaching this team and coaching the Mizzou Wheelchair Basketball Team, Lykins said, is that "these guys are older, bigger, stronger, faster, more experienced, better players."
Although they might be more experienced, Lykins said that the competitiveness and the willingness to learn is the same across all the teams he has coached.
Gilbert, an MU graduate, who played under Lykins for the Mizzou team, said that it was an honor to get picked for the team.
"It was a lot of work. Knowing that you're coming in and playing the best of the best and being picked is such a great honor," Gilbert said.
Gilbert has been a part of the U.S. team before, but, until recently, he had gotten away from competitive basketball; life demands, such as a new job and a recent marriage, have kept him busy. He still plays with the Missouri Predators, a wheelchair basketball team based out of Columbia.
He said that one of the main reasons he decided to try out for the U.S. team was because Lykins was the coach.
"Once I heard he was the U.S. coach, I was like 'I want to get back into this,'" Gilbert said.
Many of the players played together on junior teams, college teams and other professional teams.
"A lot of us play overseas, so it's just nice to get back together with the guys," Paye said. Paye made his first U.S. team in 2003 and played in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics.
The only person Paye did not know before making the team was Carter Arey, a current MU student.
"It is one big family. We would do anything for each other, which I think helps us on the court. It helps us mold into a great team," Gilbert said.
After the World Championships, the next big competition is the Parapan American Games, which will be held in Toronto, Canada, in 2015. Although there will be another tryout for that competition, Lykins said that he hopes to keep the same team he has now.
"Ideally most of these guys will be on that team because we are just looking to build and build," Lykins said. "So we're hoping that no one gets hurt, and we're hoping that no one decides not to play."
If the team does well in the Parapan American Games, they will qualify to go to the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"The plan is to stay and continue this work, and the end goal is to go to Rio," Gilbert said.
Supervising editor is Wade Livingston.