October 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sophomore Mackenzie Voecks is pretty excited about being a starter for her basketball team this fall semester: “I might be a forward. Not sure yet.” She’s also a team manager for her high school’s volleyball team. Busy girl, right? Especially considering the volleyball team is at home in Stanton, Neb., and her basketball team is nearly two hours south in Omaha.

Five years ago, Voecks was playing both basketball and volleyball in middle school when she suddenly contracted transverse myelitis. It’s a disease she describes as “your immune system attacking the nerves of your spinal cord.” Within three hours, Voecks couldn’t walk. It was at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha where she met Jeromie Meyer, a wheelchair basketball player who first told her about the Nebraska Red Dawgs. The co-ed wheelchair basketball organization is based at University of Nebraska-Omaha, where Red Dawgs coach Mike Kult is the assistant director of facilities.

“She’s very dedicated and very good,” Kult says. “She’s improved a lot.” Though Mackenzie is the only girl starting on the varsity team, the organization’s ratio of boys to girls is about 50-50. A little over 20 participants are spread across three teams: a prep team for kids under 12, a junior varsity, and a varsity team.

While the Red Dawgs isn’t a college team—students are done with the program after graduating high school—the organization is loosely connected to UNO as a teaching opportunity for adaptive physical education and adaptive recreation studies. “We’re a hands-on lab in a way,” Kult says, explaining that UNO students can assist with the team and see how the concepts work versus reading about them in a book. In return, the Red Dawgs use UNO facilities for practice, once a week on Saturdays.

Practice must be making perfect. Kult points out with a smile that in the last four years, the Red Dawgs finished third, first, first, and second in national championships. “We win, but we win with class,” he says. “What good is it if we could beat a team by 100 points, what good is that?” Rather than rack up the score, he’ll put kids out on the floor who may not always play as much. “So we won’t press, we won’t fast break, we’ll extend the game as much as we can. If the other team’s trying as hard as they can, they don’t need to feel like they don’t belong out there. We teach our kids to be good sports.”

Kult has been instilling this philosophy in the Red Dawgs since the team’s inception in 1990. That longevity, paired with heavy involvement from parents, gives the organization stability unique in high-school wheelchair basketball teams. Each parent on the board has a job, either with fundraising, with logistics, or with travel, for example. “It’s not just about ‘my kid playing,’” Kult says. “When we travel, we travel with 30 or 40 people.”

And travel they certainly do. Phoenix, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Columbia, Louisville. They’ve been invited to Pennsylvania and Dallas this year as well. The teams try to make sure they fly only about once a year and drive everywhere else.

The organization fundraises to keep it free to join, taking care of things like travel and uniforms. Chairs are also available for free from the team, but Kult encourages students to buy their own athletic chairs after they’ve stopped growing. The special chairs have wheels that are cambered, or tilted in at the top near the seat, affording a wide base. The tilt of the wheels means it’s more difficult for players to catch their hands against another chair, and it gives a faster turning speed. “You really want your chair to fit you well,” Kult explains, “you want it really tight, so if you just move your hips a bit, it reacts to you and turns.”

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Chairs can cost $3,000 apiece, and an aggressive player can wear through two or three sets of tires in a season. Each tire can cost $40. Fortunately, the Red Dawgs are sponsored through a tire company, so players have received free tires for the last few years. Also, a Red Dawg can purchase a chair through the team at half price, thanks to a good relationship with a wheelchair company in Georgia.

Perhaps surprisingly, the use of a wheelchair in everyday life is not a requirement for playing wheelchair basketball. “You have to have an orthopedic disability of a lower limb,” Kult defines. That could mean a student walks perfectly fine with a prosthetic, for example. “If you’re not used to a chair, it’s real easy to learn,” he says. “If you’ve played basketball before, the skills transfer easily. The rules are the same.”

One exception does come into play after high school in adult wheelchair basketball. A points classification system determines which adult players can be on the floor at any given time. “You can’t have over 14 points on the floor,” Kult explains. “Say somebody who has a bad leg is a 4.5. Someone with a high spinal cord injury is going to be a class 1.” Ergo, if a team has four players with a bad foot and each of those players is a class 5, that’s 20 points; six over the limit. Obviously, a highly skilled, low-number class player is a valuable asset to a college or professional team.
Even though junior teams like the Red Dawgs don’t have to observe the points system, Kult explains that he still trains and develops all his students alike. “We get recruited a lot here,” Kult says with pride.

Fewer than a dozen universities in the United States offer wheelchair basketball, but Kult sent off yet another of his students to one of them this fall. Dylan Fischbach, former Red Dawgs captain for three years, began his freshman year at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in September.
“I think Mike prepared me very well for the college division,” Fischbach says. “He kind of molded me into a leader with that team.” He played with the Red Dawgs a total of eight years, encouraged by his parents. Mom Kelly is a physical education teacher, and father Bruce is the head athletic trainer at University of South Dakota. “They dragged me into it,” Fischbach says, “and I can’t thank them enough.”

Fischbach was one of Kult’s recruits who wasn’t used to a wheelchair, thanks to a prosthetic leg. “I was playing able-bodied basketball at the time,” he recalls, “so shooting was weird.” During his first game as a Red Dawg, he stood out of his chair two or three times. “Usually, that’s a technical, but I was 10, so they just kind of brushed it off.” Fischbach pauses. “[Kult] wasn’t exactly happy that game.”

Kult will proudly relay that his own college coach was the wheelchair-basketball version of Bobby Knight. To hear Fischbach tell it, Kult might have absorbed some of that coaching style himself. “He’ll get in your face, definitely. There was a time when we weren’t boxing out,” the Whitewater freshman remembers. “He always hated it when the ball just dropped, and he grabbed his leg and kicked the ball across the court. We kind of got a clue we needed to get to work.”

Fischbach hopes to keep working well after college, as a matter of fact. His major is sports management, but he’d like to play professionally. There is no professional wheelchair basketball in the U.S., but a few Red Dawgs have gone on to play in Europe. Josh Turek, for example, plays in France and was a forward on the USA bronze-medal team in the 2012 Paralympic Games. Before that he played in Madrid for nine years.

Fischbach personally has his eye on Galatasaray, a sports club in Turkey. “They pay the best, and they’re the defending champs of their league,” he says.

Professional athletics in Europe aren’t in the cards for everyone, but Kult is quick to point out the sport’s benefits that are available to all participants. “Unemployment with a disability is usually in the 60 to 70 percentile. Kids who play sports bring that percentage down because they’ve developed confidence,” he says. “Kids who’ve heard ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t,’ can say, ‘I was in a tournament in Dallas, we won, I scored so many points.’ They have that same thing to talk about with other kids.” Knowing how to work toward a goal, work as a team, and deliver on expectations are all skills that increase the employment chances of a person with a disability. Close friendships and improved health from consistent exercise are, of course, other bonuses.

Despite the benefits, recruiting is not an easy task. Medical law means the organization can’t simply cold-call from a list, and eligible kids typically lack the confidence to approach the team even when they’ve heard about it. “So if we see a kid limping or in a wheelchair, we approach them,” Kult admits.

“We’d love to find more kids,” he says. “Even if we had 50 kids, we’d find room for all of them.”

While the Red Dawgs don’t play games at UNO frequently, the campus will host a regional tournament in February, one of eight around the country. The top 16 teams go on to play at nationals. For more information, visit the Nebraska Red Dawgs Facebook page.