With their chairs on the line, Garrett French and Steve Hathaway await the sound of the whistle. “Let’s go, let’s go!” coach Steve Paxton says as the MU wheelchair basketball players propel their chairs through routines on the Student Recreation Center court.
As they approach the last turn, determination to beat their best times is etched on their faces. French is “in the zone” and before he can stop, he slams into a wooden wall, moving the partition several inches.
Before beginning shoot-around, the players, red-faced and sweaty, took a timeout for water. As the end of practice nears, French and Hathaway work on their shooting. The majority of the time, both players’ shots were nothing but net. When they missed, they would quickly roll over and single-handedly sweep up the ball.
The players usually arrive at practice at 6 a.m., tired and sleepy. But as they leave at 9 a.m., they are wide awake and ready for class.
A unique dynamic exists between French and Hathaway. Both are freshmen and share a love of basketball. Their stories, however, are different.
French, 19, is from Dekalb, Ill. Hathaway, 35 was born and raised in southern Missouri.
French was born with spina bifida, a birth defect involving the development of the brain and spinal cord. He uses a wheelchair for mobility. He can walk with crutches for short distances but doesn’t do it often.
“I have been in a chair my entire life,” French said. “It’s not a detriment at all. I have never been able to walk, so I have nothing to base it on.”
Hathaway was in a motorcycle accident three years ago that left him with no feeling from the waist down. He spent time after his accident recovering at Rusk Rehabilitation Center relearning day-to-day tasks, such as getting dressed. Before the accident, Hathaway served seven years in the Air Force. He later worked as a Schwan’s man, delivering ice cream. His physical limitations have not slowed him down.
French lives in a residence hall.
Hathaway lives off campus with his wife and children.
French enjoys hanging out, listening to music and playing video games in his spare time.
Hathaway enjoys spending time with his wife and five children.
“It’s hard to juggle to keep up with school and family and then add basketball to the mix,” he said.
Having a supportive wife allows him to do it all on schedule, Hathaway said.
French has not declared a major, but he is leaning toward business.
Hathaway is a psychology major because a psychologist at Rusk Rehabilitation Center inspired him.
Both players say they feel honored to be a part of the initial wheelchair basketball team at MU. French, Hathaway and Paxton’s main goal is to inform people that MU has a wheelchair program.
There is a close relationship between the players and their coach. They make it a point to go out to eat together at least once every two weeks.
Paxton, 33, said if you’re involved with an established program that has been around for 40 or 50 years, you’re plugged into a system. He said one advantage to point out to recruits is players at MU get to come in and help build and shape the program.
“You actually get to have a say in what we do, how we do it, what we look like, who we recruit, logos, the color of T-shirts, everything,” Paxton said.
Another selling point is the use of the recreation facility.
“This center offers a program that no one else can match.” Paxton said. “It’s one of the most amazing facilities in the country.”
The rules of the game differ slightly from standard basketball. Players must dribble once for every two pushes of the players’ manual chairs. Wheelchair basketball players get an extra second in the lane, bringing the total to four seconds.
“I found out really quick that it’s a completely different game sitting down than standing up,” Hathaway said.
“I can promise you that if there are people out there that haven’t seen a wheelchair basketball game, they are definitely underestimating the competitiveness of the game.”
Paxton said, “The demands of the game dictate the use of a manual chair for quick turns, stops, and maneuverability.”
The NCAA does not recognize wheelchair basketball. Jennifer Kearns, a representative of the NCAA, said wheelchair basketball does not meet the bylaws and criteria set for NCAA status. Intercollegiate Athletic Department would have to recognize the wheelchair basketball program. Recreation Services houses the program.
Being part of Recreation Services rather than the athletic department does not affect the attitudes of Paxton or his players.
“It will look like an athletic team in every aspect. These will be elite student athletes who come in here, who are training day after day, week after week, putting in as much if not more time than the football players and the basketball players,” Paxton said.
Paxton said he expects two more players in January. Two have made verbal commitments for fall 2005.
When talking about his immediate goals, Paxton said, “We will play by next fall. I will do whatever it takes.”