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Wheeling into a new season: ASU's Wheelchair Basketball team starts preparing for the games ahead

Wheelchair basketball team prepares to defeat opponents

ASU graduate student Donald Santiago takes a shot during practice in the downtown Sun Devil Fitness Center in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.
ASU graduate student Donald Santiago takes a shot during practice in the downtown Sun Devil Fitness Center in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.

Wandering to the third floor of the Downtown Phoenix Sun Devil Fitness Complex on any given Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning, you'd stumble upon something unexpected. On one basketball court, the squeaking of shoes and the pounding of a ball echo against the floor. 

The other court, however, is a little more quiet, with a slight whirring of wheels and the sound of the basketball leaving one player’s hands to the next.

The second year of ASU’s Wheelchair Basketball team is under way. However, most of the players are new to the team, which is rebooting after a massive turnover. The first games will occur on Oct. 21 or 22 at the Ability 360 Sports and Fitness Center.

“We’re kind of in a transition period partly because all of our coaching staff moved on, and we’re getting all new coaching staff,” Donald Santoso, a law graduate, said. “Most of our players moved on.”

Only two returning players are present, Santoso and Stephen Binning. The turnover was not just the players, however, the team is currently searching for new coaches.

“Obviously, we have to take some kind of leadership kind of by default,” Santoso said.

The team recently started working on preseason scrimmages and conditioning. This gives new players opportunities to learn the game so the team can decide who will make the team for the regular season.

“Last year, we had a lot more experience because everyone coming in had experience playing at community level,” Santoso said. “All our coaches were Olympians. It’s really like starting new again.”

Throughout his life, Santoso has had six failed knee surgeries that stopped him from playing most sports at a collegiate level. He said he doesn’t describe himself as disabled because he can walk. However, because he has an orthopedic issue or a minimal disability, it stops him from playing fully-abled sports, so he is classified to play wheelchair basketball.

“For our collegiate division, we allow able-bodied people to play,” Santoso said. “Once you play on other teams, community teams, you have to have at least a minimal disability.”

Santoso was introduced to the sport as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley where he worked as volunteer coach. He started playing once he got to Phoenix for his law degree where he joined the Phoenix Banner Wheelchair Suns.

Binning, a team member, but not an ASU student, has been participating in wheelchair basketball since he was six years old. Because this team is still starting up, ASU gave the team a grace period so non-ASU students can play for the team if they plan on enrolling within a year. 

“I’ve grown up with the sport,” Binning said. “I want to see the sport at ASU grow.”

Binning has Spina bifida which is a birth defect where the closing of the backbone and its membranes around the spinal cord are incomplete. 

Haifu Zhen, exercise and wellness senior, is an intern for the wheelchair basketball team. He works with them two to three times per week. Zhen doesn't play, but instead helps train the team with their individual disabilities.

“I just want to help them out, be a better player on the court,” Zhen said. “I help them get better at the cardio rise.”

The sport is not an easy one. Maneuvering the equipment, for example, adds an extra challenge for the athletes. Athletes have to take simple things like dribbling and put a spin on them, literally. The players have to spin the ball as they dribble it so the ball will arc back up to wheelchair. Because players lose the momentum they would have from their knees, their upper body strength is exponentially stronger than an average basketball player.

At one point during the scrimmage, Santoso wrecked with another player, the wheelchair falling on top of him. With only upper body and core strength, he lifted himself back into playing position without unbuckling or removing the chair.

But these challenges don't stop the players from loving the game.

"I don’t really see myself as disabled," Binning said. "I remember when I was young taking PE or something. Whatever the class is doing, I’m going to find a way to do it even if I have to modify it in some way.” 

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