Wheelchair basketball keeps Arizona kids in the game

Gabriel Scanlan, 10, Gilbert on his home basketball court
Gabriel Scanlan (10), of Gilbert, on his home basketball court. Photo by Tac Coluccio.

Monday nights are a magical time in downtown Mesa. That’s when kids from across the Valley—and around Arizona—meet at the Broadway Recreation Center to participate in their favorite sport: basketball.

What makes this event so remarkable is that the team is made up of players who wouldn’t normally get a chance to compete in a game that requires running and jumping. These kids show up to play wheelchair basketball.

They play with Arizona Heat Adaptive Sports programs, part of Arizona Disabled Sports (AzDS), an organization that provides adaptive sports and recreational programs for individuals with physical disabilities.

Gabriel Scanlan, 10, Gilbert on his home basketball court
On his own full-size basketball court, Gabriel shows off the shooting skills he has honed playing wheelchair basketball with an Arizona Disabled Sports team. Photo by Tac Coluccio.

Ten-year-old Gabriel Scanlan, of Gilbert, who was born with spina bifida, started participating in multiple sports through Arizona Disabled Sports when he was 5. (Besides wheelchair basketball, the nonprofit offers archery, bowling, cycling, kayaking, power soccer, swimming and track and field.) But for this young athlete, no activity compared with his true passion: wheelchair basketball.

Gabriel’s father, Ben, says he wasn’t a huge basketball fan before Gabriel started shooting hoops: “I was always more interested in football, baseball and wrestling.” Gabriel’s enthusiasm made such an impact on the family that they had a full-size basketball court built in the backyard—just in time for this past Christmas—so Gabriel can practice.

MJ Kasten, 9, of Scottsdale, is a newbie to the wheelchair basketball team. MJ was a typical, active youngster until around age 5, when she started developing weakness in her legs from a neurological disorder. It was devastating news for the Kasten family, for whom sports is a big part of their lives.

MJ’s mother, Jenifer Kasten, reached out to Raising Special Kids, a nonprofit that provides support and information for parents of children with disabilities and special needs. The organization offered information on various sports programs. MJ started with archery and track and field; but when she joined the wheelchair basketball team, she found her true passion.

“She looks forward to it so much,” says Kasten. “We drive at least one hour each way, but she doesn’t care. She always wants to go, even when she’s sick.”

Ask MJ what she likes most about the game and she’ll tell you, “I like being part of a team.”

Gabriel and MJ are on the Prep Team at AzDS, the beginner league for wheelchair basketball. Someday they both aspire to be part of AzDS’s high-school-level JV and Varsity Arizona  Wheelchair Suns basketball teams, which are sponsored by the Phoenix Banner Wheelchair Suns, an adult league supported by the Phoenix Suns and Banner Health and consistently ranked among the top wheelchair basketball teams in the nation.

Several former players from these leagues have gone on to play at the college level, with spots on the wheelchair basketball team at the University of Arizona. (A program at Arizona State University is in its inaugural year).

Playing at the high school level would be a big accomplishment: the teams are currently ranked number one in the U.S. after big wins at the West Coast Conference Bid Regional junior wheelchair basketball tournament, which was hosted last month at the former Virginia G. Piper Sports & Fitness Center, now called the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center.

wheelchair basketball
Players from the Phoenix Banner Wheelchair Suns gather around their coach at West Coast Conference Bid Regional junior wheelchair basketball tournament this past December at Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center in Phoenix. Photo: Facebook.com/Arizona Disabled Sports.

To learn more about wheelchair basketball and other adaptive sports for kids, contact Arizona Disabled Sports program supervisor Nina Bernardo at 480-835-6273 or nina@arizonadisabled sports.com.