2021 NWBA Adult and Junior Wheelchair Basketball National Championships kick off
Nearly five decades separate Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets wheelchair basketball teammates Donnie Langford and Preston Howell IV.
At 63, Langford resembles Santa Claus — jovial, passionate about helping others and even sporting white hair and a long, white beard.
But it’s his wisdom that the 16-year-old Howell values most during the 2021 National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Toyota Adult & Junior Wheelchair Basketball National Championships, which tipped off Thursday at Wichita Hoops in Wichita, Kan.
“I liked playing with the older guys because they know what they’re doing, and they teach me a lot. I’ve learned, really from Donnie, passing and reading the floor and being unselfish,” says Howell, who just joined Charlotte’s Adult Division III team this year and will be playing in both the Adult and Junior Varsity divisions. “But as a team, I think I’ve learned communication and picking and plays.”
Unselfishness and teamwork helped Charlotte go 2-0 in round robin play in the Adult Division III tournament. Adult Divisions I, II and III kicked off play Thursday, while the junior divisions (Varsity, Junior Varsity, Junior NIT and Prep) will begin play Friday. The tournament is back to full force this year after the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic canceled the Junior Division tournament last year just days before it began and caused some Adult Division teams to leave during the opening days.
This year, the tournament’s second straight in Wichita, featured a different atmosphere with pandemic protocols in place. Most athletes, coaches and officials wore masks, as did spectators sitting in the bleachers. Basketballs were sanitized before and after games.
Charlotte defeated the Cleveland Wheelchair Cavaliers, 57-37, in its first round robin game and the Houston Rollin’ Rockets, 52-28, in its second round robin game Thursday.
Considering Charlotte had only played four games so far this season, going 4-0 and winning the Pioneer Classic/SEC Invitational tournament in Birmingham, Ala., it was a good start.
“Like, the first half of that [opening] game, it was sort of like we hadn’t played in a while and jitters was there, and second half everything seemed to be falling in place more. And as the weekend goes on, we’ll get better,” Langford says. “We’ve got a good team ’cause we’ve got some dedicated ballplayers on this team.”
One of those dedicated ballplayers is Howell.
He’s used to being around older people and being the youngest player on his team. Howell, who has an undiagnosed condition but has scoliosis in his back and rods in his legs and hips, started playing nine years ago. He got involved after watching a Team USA women’s wheelchair basketball camp scrimmage.
“I eat, sleep and breath it,” says the Belmont, N.C., resident. “Honestly, I love playing with a wide variety of people, not playing the same competition all the time. And it’s just good to see the sport grow.”
Langford agrees. For him, playing with younger players like Howell energizes him. They’ve got a head start at an early age compared to when he was younger.
“That’s why they play so well in the adult league ’cause they’ve got so much experience already,” Langford says. “The thing that they have is their energy. They’ve got so much energy in that they just push, push, push. And they seem to have more of a calm about them about playing. We get all hopped up, but the kids, they seem to be more relaxed because they’ve been doing it so long. It’s not a big thing to them because that’s their way of life.”
Langford has spent the past 41 years playing wheelchair basketball.
Only a month after getting married to his wife, Janet, he was involved in a hit-and-run accident with a tractor trailer in Knoxville, Tenn., leaving him a C4 incomplete paraplegic. While he was mired in the depths of depression, his wife turned him onto wheelchair basketball. She convinced him to attend his first game and took him to his first practice, which helped him out of that dark place. Once he saw the speed it took to play, he was hooked.
Langford has played on a handful of teams since then, helping lead the Carolina Tarwheels to a 2014 Division III title in Louisville, Ky. He was named the Division III tournament’s Most Valuable Player that year, as well. A few years later, the Tarwheels disbanded, and Langford joined the Rollin’ Hornets as a coach/player again in 2018. Now, he’s back to full-time player.
“I’m in here with everybody else. We’ve all got something in common, and it’s a good feeling,” Langford says.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE DAY
Jesus Villa admitted he got lucky.
With 2.7 seconds remaining in overtime and the game tied, the Detroit Wheelchair Pistons player stole the ball from Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Sharks player Arnold Barnes after a missed free throw and made a layup at the buzzer to give the Detroit a 73-71 win in the team’s opening round Adult Division II round robin game.
The taller Barnes had grabbed the rebound after the free throw miss and cradled it with one hand in the air. But he didn’t have it up high enough. Villa swiped the ball from underneath the basket, moved to the left side, paused and banked in a layup as time expired to lift Detroit to the victory.
“I tried to make it just a quick shot, and the ball just kind of ended up in my lap and, yeah, so, it was kind of crazy,” said the 26-year-old Villa. “It definitely shocked me. I was surprised. I wanted to make sure I had good control of the ball and take my time with the shot, especially if you’re right there, you know, in that situation … I knew at the free-throw line, there was 2.7 seconds left, I believe. So I had time to gather myself and make sure it was a good shot and just took advantage of the situation.”
Detroit went 1-1 in the opening day, falling to the ABC Medical Legends 55-47 in its second game.
A Dominican Republic native and double amputee, Villa was born without tibias, or shinbones, and had both his legs amputated when he was 2 years old. A 2013 graduate of DeLeSalle High School in Minneapolis, he played wheelchair basketball at Southwest Minnesota State University from 2017-2020.
“We had three people foul out, and it was just a really good team effort,” says Villa, a Royal Oak, Mich., resident. “In that first half, I was struggling. I think I had three points the whole half, but other people picked me up and made it a close game. And then, once I had the opportunity, I started shooting better and it all came together.”
Toyota NWBA National Wheelchair Basketball Championships
At Wichita Hoops
Round Robin Seeding Games
Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks 72, NMSCD Wolf Pack 54
Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks 86, Tampa Bay Strong Dogs 54
NMCSD Wolf Pack 60, Tampa Bay Strong Dogs 38
WASA Bucks 77, Austin Rec’ers 47
WASA Bucks 94, Kansas City Kings 42
Kansas City Kings 54, Austin Rec’ers 41
Round Robin Seeding Games
Detroit Wheelchair Pistons 73, Fort Lauderdale Sharks 71 (OT)
ABC Medical Legends 56, OKC Wheels of Thunder 43
Fort Lauderdale Sharks 65, OKC Wheels of Thunder 44
ABC Medical Legends 55, Detroit Wheelchair Pistons 47
Round Robin Seeding Games
Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets 57, Cleveland Wheelchair Cavaliers 37
Lakeshore Storm 53, Houston Rollin’ Rockets 27
Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets 52, Houston Rollin’ Rockets 28
Lakeshore Storm 59, Cleveland Wheelchair Cavaliers 44