Wheelchair basketball team promotes exercise, teamwork and educating others

Kansas Wheelhawks use skills not only to win, but to help others new to the game

By Savanna Maue, February 26, 2017

Manuael Pena is shown shooting a basket at the tournament.

Manuel Pena tries to score over a Tulsa
Jammers defender at the 3rd annual KC
Classic Wheelchair Basketball Tournament on
Feb. 11. Pena began playing wheelchair
basketball after moving to Topeka in 1994.
(Photo by Chris Neal/The Capital-Journal)


LAWRENCE — After his first basketball game of the day, Manuel “Manny” Peña, resting during a lunch break, picked at the tape wrapped around his thumbs and index fingers.

His hands are rough and calloused, but he is still cautious, because without his hands, he wouldn’t be walking at all.

Peña is an amputee currently in his 20th season with the Kansas Wheelhawks, northeast Kansas’ only wheelchair-accessible basketball team.

He moved to Topeka from Puerto Rico in 1993 and started playing in 1997. “I used to play before, before my accident,” Peña said. “And I knew nothing about wheelchair basketball, but I said, ‘OK, I’ll try,’ and believe me, it’s hard — sitting down in a chair and pushing, and watching these guys who do it every day. But having only one leg, I would watch these guys push around like it was normal and I was like, ‘I need to learn.’ And I love it — that’s why I’m still here 20 years later.”

Peña walks with crutches and says one of his biggest mistakes was not using his prosthetic years ago. But as an athlete he likes to move fast, and he didn’t enjoy the thought of slowing down. But Peña remains positive, even to the point of cheering up the losing team. He said there is always time to learn to use his prosthesis.

The 15-player Wheelhawks are coached by Ray Petty, 66, of Lawrence. Petty has been down the court a time or two and knows pretty much everyone in the accessible-sports community, as well as being knowledgeable about basketball, which he has played for 27 years.

Even in his chair, Petty is the coach no referee wants to mess with. He has a stern appearance, with a heavy brow and white beard, and his reading glasses are usually perched atop his head. At the last practice before the team’s big tournament, he was dressed in jeans and a blue work shirt, resembling a farmer just out of the fields — which is entirely possible, as he lives on a farm on the outskirts of Lawrence.

Petty helps run his family farm, works full time with the Great Plains ADA Center, and is a beloved grandpa, in addition to his coaching responsibilities.

“Hey, John, be careful out there, don’t break a leg — again,” Petty jokes as John Teegarden rolls through the gym doors at Holcom Park Recreation Center. Teegarden greets him, gives him a slap on the back and goes to switch out his recreational chair for his sports one.

Coach Petty is shown speaking with Number 32, Taylor Moore.

Ray Petty of Lawrence, is the team coach and occasional player, gives
some instruction during the Wheelhawks game Feb. 11 against the
Tulsa Jammers at the at the 3rd annual KC Classic Wheelchair
Basketball Tournament. Petty began playing wheelchair basketball
when he was 40, and has been on the team for 26 years.
(Photo by Chris Neal/The Capital-Journal)

Petty’s humor is quick and a little rough around the edges. Being born with polio and as capable as he is now, there is little room on the court for “whiners,” he says.

The sport is challenging, and for those who are wheelchair users, the strain wears on the muscles. But, Petty said, the alternative is worse.

“Half of this is really keeping your weight down and keeping your fitness up, so for a lot of people who can’t do something else, this is how you get your exercise,” he said. “I didn’t start until 1990, and I was 40, so all these guys who played as teenagers got a chance to play in their prime.”

The Wheelhawks are a tough group of individuals, ranging from 12 years old to 66, and each has his own backstory. But as a team, it isn’t their differences you see as you watch them weave down the court or change direction with just a twist of their wrist. It’s their communication and skill from years of practice that make their games hypnotizing.

“I’ve loved it so much,” said Jarvis Stirn, of Lawrence. “The sport was different, but it was the energy and camaraderie you had with other people who were in chairs and had a similar disability to what you had.

“So I’ve never stopped coming back, and now I’m part of the organization Kansas Accessible Sports. I’m the treasurer with the Midwest conference, and I do a little bit of everything. I’ve just loved it so consistently — my wife knows, Tuesday is basketball practice.”

Jarvis was in a car accident in 1995 and began playing ball in 1997 while attending Kansas State University. His experience shows as he easily calls out instructions. When he, Peña and Clayton Peters, of Topeka, are all on the court at the same time, their movements are so synchronized that they seem choreographed.

This year, the team struggled with injured players and other commitments. Injuries kept the team from being up to full strength until the tournament Feb. 11 at the third annual KC Classic in Overland Park.

“I don’t want to sound like Bill Self or anything, but you know, every year we bring a strong team,” Stirn joked after the Wheelhawks’ first win of the tournament.

The Wheelhawks beat the Tulsa Jammers 64-38. The team’s record for the weekend was 4-1, with its only loss to fellow D-2 team The Madonna Magic, from Lincoln, Neb.

“It’s been an uphill battle for us,” said John Watson, of Lawrence. “At the recreational level, a lot of players have full-time jobs and family commitments and can’t always get out to our tournaments, so we haven’t been at full strength until now, and that’s been a big factor in our win/loss record.”

Watson is in his second season with the Wheelhawks. Before that, he was on the college wheelchair basketball team at the University of Texas-Arlington.

The team welcomes any person with limited mobility to join and even has sports chairs would-be players can try out before spending $3,500 for their own. Petty explained that players don’t have to be wheelchair users, and younger players are strongly encouraged to give it a try.

After learning the basics of wheelchair mobility, it is just working on basketball skills, the same as any other sport.

Petty recalled a few stories during practice, pausing every so often to bark out a drill to his players. He explained that working with a child and exposing them to being able to play a team sport completely changes their outlook on their future.

“We’ve always taken chairs and a team to their (children’s) schools, and they play, and some students get in the other chairs, and when a kid like Taylor with spina bifida who’s been walking with crutches his entire life hits a three-pointer in front of the entire student body, the teachers come up and say, ‘He’s a different kid,’ ” Petty said.

“Because it’s not just the physical, it’s learning to be a team player, to not be a wuss … but if you don’t get to play sports, and particularly if you’re a guy, you don’t get to play competitive sports, you don’t get to respecting other people — their positions on the court — you don’t earn your own respect, and it just changes the social nature of the whole game.”

After their first win at the KC Classic, Peña rolled over to the Tulsa Jammers and could be seen explaining some of the techniques he thought the team could work on to improve. The Jammers had a younger team this year, with women making up about half the team. That gave them an advantage in speed, but they lacked the height to be able to block some of the 6-foot men on the Wheelhawks.

“I try to help everybody, and I saw at one point in the game all the kids go to the same side, and, I mean, it’s good for us, but that’s bad, so I told them at one point in the game they had everybody on the same side and it’s hard to try and move the ball and get somebody open to make a shot,” Peña explained.

“I feel bad because we’ve got more height. At another point in the game there was the little girl, everybody was picking on her, and she was like, ‘I’m trying,’ and I was just like, ‘Don’t worry, stay in the game, you’re doing an excellent job,’ and when she blocked me at one point she blocked me perfectly, and I said, ‘You’re doing a good job, you blocked me,’ and she patted me on the back and said ‘thank you,’ and that’s the point, trying to help them out. And in this game, I don’t want anyone to feel bad. That’s not the point — just keep trying and do your best.”

Anyone interested in the Wheelhawks or in playing tennis or softball this spring can call Petty at (785) 331-5034 or visit the Kansas Accessible Sports Facebook page or website at kansasaccessiblesports.com.

Related article: Wheelhawks abilites extend outside the court


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