Tag Archives: basketball

The Other World-Renowned Kobe

January 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kobe Paras had never heard of Omaha when Creighton called this past summer.

He spent the first 15 years of his life in the Philippines before moving to Los Angeles to chase a basketball scholarship. At the time, Creighton was just one of dozens of prominent basketball programs in pursuit of the high-flying 6-foot-5-inch tall guard. Creighton head coach Greg McDermott had coveted Paras since he first spotted the native Filipino while recruiting his high school teammate. Paras had committed to UCLA at the time, but he withdrew from the school in early June after failure to meet academic requirements. With Paras back on the open market, McDermott wanted to make him a Bluejay.

During his July visit to Creighton’s campus, Paras toured the $13 million Championship Center and posed for pictures with McDermott’s Naismith player of the year trophy, but it was the personal connections Paras made that led him to pick Creighton as his future home.

“I got to bond with the coaches and my teammates, and it really felt right,” Paras says.

He will need those bonds. Paras enjoys celebrity status in his home country, as the basketball-obsessed nation looks to him as a potential NBA player. The Pacific archipelago has never produced a professional player in the world’s most coveted league.

“I am not a regular student-athlete,” he says. “I have a lot of people looking up to me.”

Paras’ earliest memories are of hoards of fans stopping to ask his father, Benjie Paras, for autographs and pictures. Benjie was a two-time MVP in the Philippine Basketball Association, and has since become an actor. His father’s fame caused the younger Paras to grow up in the limelight, but Benjie tried to instill a sense of perspective in his son.

“When he was my age, he had to do laundry for other people to have enough money,” says the younger Paras of his father. “He kept telling me how blessed I was.”

Basketball was not something Paras picked up until the third grade. Before that time, he played badminton and table tennis. A growth spurt in seventh grade helped the now-taller young man to fall in love with basketball. Meanwhile, basketball continued to grow in popularity throughout the Philippines.

“Basketball in the Philippines is a religion,” Paras says. “Wherever you go, you see people playing basketball.” 

NBA games were constantly broadcast throughout the country, which helped Paras, whose first name pays homage to the recently retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, become familiar with the sport’s biggest stars.

In 2013, an encounter with his favorite player, Lebron James, took Paras’ fame to a whole new level. During a trip to the Philippines, James took part in a camp for the country’s most promising young players. In a pre-game warm-up, Paras slammed home a one-handed dunk as James leapt to the side of him in a half-hearted effort to play defense.

“I didn’t really plan it,” says Paras about the moment. “My friends were like, ‘do you realize who you just dunked on?’”   

The original video of the dunk received over 2.5 million views. That clip would bring about a whole new level of fame for the then-15 year old.

Paras’ move stateside to aid his basketball skills would come just months after the dunk. It was at Cathedral High School, under the guidance of coach William Middlebrooks, that Paras, living away from his family, honed his leadership skills and focused on building his brand.

“I told him, now that you are here, your popularity can only grow,” says coach Middlebrooks. “Especially as people better understand Kobe Paras the person.”

Paras also developed as a basketball player with more than just raw athleticism. He will bring those skills to a Creighton team poised to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

“He already has the body to play at this level,” says McDermott of Paras. “He also really knows how to put the ball in the basket.” 

And even thousands of miles from the Philippines, Paras’ enthusiastic fans have been able to follow his every move.

“We found out pretty quick that the media in the Philippines was going to find him wherever he went,” says McDermott, who has spent many a Skype session this fall with the media outlets in Paras’ home country.

Paras also keeps in touch with many back home via social media. On Twitter he has over 114,000 followers and on Instagram he has more than 454,000 followers.

“On social media people always reach out to me,” Paras says. “Anywhere I am, I feel the support.”

Even though he knew almost nothing about Omaha before his visit in July, he has come to appreciate his new home. He says his favorite place is the gym, and he loves that there is less traffic here than in Los Angeles. He also knows that the start of basketball season means winter is coming.

“He is getting ready for that snow,” Middlebrooks says. “He called me and said, ‘coach, I think I need boots.’”

Visit gocreighton.com for more information.


Isiah Gandy

August 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If there was a sport at Boys Town, Isiah Gandy didn’t just play it. He excelled at it.

As a high school freshman, he was instrumental in Boys Town’s push through the state basketball playoffs to win the 2006 championship, the school’s first title in 40 years.

As a senior quarterback, he led the Cowboys football team to the Class C-1 championship (although they lost the final game). 

He also ran cross country and participated in the triple jump and high jump in track and field. But his first—his strongest—sport was always basketball, a game he picked up on the local court near his childhood home of West Palm Beach, Florida.

“My dad played basketball, and we shot baskets in the backyard when I was a kid, so it’s something I’ve always loved,” says Gandy.

After Boys Town, he bounced around college programs. Following one year at Des Moines Area Community College, and two seasons on court with the UNO Mavericks, Gandy transferred to Minot State University in North Dakota for his junior and senior years.

Now, Gandy has the opportunity to play his favorite game in Omaha again—and get paid for it.

This fall, he will take the court with the newly formed Omaha Chargers of the National Basketball League of America. The first-year league starts this September with a short season ending in November.

“I’ve always had a hunger for basketball,” says Gandy, who has been coaching at his high school alma mater for the past two basketball seasons. “I love the work—the grind—involved with playing basketball and playing it well.

Teams on the Chargers’ schedule are located in Sioux City, Kansas City, and Sioux Falls, and home games will be played at Ralston Arena.

As a shooting guard, Gandy joins a squad with deep ties to the local community. Head coach Rodney Buford played basketball at Creighton University before an NBA career. Point guard C.J. Carter graduated from Omaha Benson High School, was an all-star at UNO, and played professional basketball in Macedonia last season. Shooting guard James Parrott hails from Omaha, and several other teammates have links to regional basketball programs.

Gandy initially came to Omaha via Boys Town when he was 15, and he excelled right away on and off the court.

“Boys Town was a great experience for me because I learned a lot of things that I didn’t get to do in a single-parent home in Florida,” says Gandy. “We never sat down to eat as a family at home, but we did at Boys Town, and that meant something to me. Overall, it was a good experience.”

While he’s excited to play before an audience that he considers to be his home crowd, Gandy also hopes to parlay his playing time with the Chargers into a chance at international pro leagues.

“I found out about the league in April when a friend sent me a link, and I was interested right away,” he says. “This is going to be a great opportunity to see the support the community gives to its sports teams on a professional level.”

Visit omahachargers.com for more information. Omaha Magazine


Kianna Ibis

February 11, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha Benson Magnet School girls basketball program has a preseason tradition involving a pizza-fueled sleepover on the eve of the first game.

Senior Kianna Ibis, who will play for Arizona State next season after graduation, is now preparing for what is the equivalent of a four-year “sleepover” as she looks ahead to Arizona State University after graduating from Benson.

“The weather,” Ibis quipped on a recent and particularly frigid afternoon when the senior was asked what she’s most looking forward to as she anticipates life in sunny Tempe. “The campus is beautiful. The program is great and I love the coaching staff. They are just amazing. They are like a family down there, just like we are here at Benson.”

Ibis averaged 20.2 points and 15.2 rebounds last year as she propelled the 26-2 Bunnies to their first girls basketball championship in the school’s 110-year history. Among her many honors is her selection to the First Team All-State squad in each of the past two seasons. She was the only player from the metro named to last year’s First Team roster.

“For Benson she means we have another chance at a run for the state title,” says Benson co-coach Pat Holston. “For Arizona State she means that they get someone with the potential to develop into an All-American-caliber player. Kianna is not only a great shooter, but she’s also a great defender. She’s a complete athlete…the total package. She means a lot to any team she’s on.”

The long and lanky 6-footer is known for a spin move that has the ability to leave defenders in a heady daze. It’s a parquet floor ballet that most often results in a pair of points coming as a result of her deadly left-handed hook shot.

If her dietary regimen is any indication, it’s a good bet that Ibis may have an inch or two to gain before her Pac-12 career is over.

“Food is one of my guilty pleasures,” says the standout recruit who gets pumped for a game listening to R&B. “A whole bag of Cheetos in one sitting. A container of ice cream. Just the usual, normal stuff,” she winks.

“To win state for the first time in school history was huge,” explains Ibis, a Sioux City native whose local impact was immediate when she started as a freshman for Benson. When the buzzer sounded as the Bunnies topped Bellevue West 47-43 in last year’s championship game, Ibis says she didn’t know quite how to react.

“It took a while for it to sink in,” says Ibis, who is known simply as “Kee” by her teammates. “The thing I’ll never forget…the tears of joy.”


Aguek Arop

January 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Aguek Arop will blow out the candles on three more birthday cakes before he dons a Big Red basketball jersey for the first time. The 15-year-old Omaha South sophomore is the youngest player ever to commit to the University of Nebraska basketball program.

In the meantime, he will be recuperating from another kind of blowout—this one to his knee. Arop suffered a season-ending injury in a recent pre-season practice.

At least his downtime will give the native of South Sudan an opportunity to work on rehabilitating his nickname.

“You know the scene in the old Disney movie where Bambi slips and slides on the ice?” asks South High Coach Bruce Chubick Sr. in describing the vision of a spindly, wobbly, all-elbows-and-knees form of chaotic locomotion. “He seems to spend most of every practice on the floor,” Chubick adds with a chuckle. “Part of it is his all-out style of play and part of it is the fact that his other senses haven’t caught up with the fact that he has grown so rapidly to…almost 6-foot-5 now. We hope he has a couple more inches to go before he hits Lincoln.”

Arop, flashing a wry grin, explains that coach has it all wrong.

“My nickname—the one I like—is just Gwookie. That’s all…just Gwookie,” says the young man whose name is pronounced uh-GWOOK uh-ROPE. “Coach is always joking with me that I need to ‘watch out for the line,’” as if the white grid outline of the court’s floor were some insurmountable obstacle to vault. “I run hard. I play hard. Sometimes I end up on the floor,” he adds with a so-what’s-the-big-deal shrug.

Living down a nickname and learning to get around in a cast may seem like significant challenges for any teen, but that’s nothing compared to the danger Arop and his family faced in war-torn South Sudan before fleeing to find refuge in the United States before eventually settling in Omaha.

“I never could have seen myself here and in this position when I was a little kid,” Arop says. “I started playing basketball in the 4th grade after we got here and now it is really important to me to be successful. I went down to Lincoln when I was in 8th grade. I was already excited about the program and coach, and that was all it took to know I wanted to play for Coach Tim Miles” (see related story on page 172).

Arop is a polite, well-mannered sort of young man, but that doesn’t mean he is incapable of some playful theatrics. He revealed his decision to commit to Nebraska in a meeting with Miles in Lincoln. With his parents in tow, bear hugs all-around followed after Arop dramatically peeled off one T-shirt to reveal another.

“It said ‘All In’ on that shirt,” Arop beamed. “I’m all in for Coach Miles and Husker basketball.”


The Basketball Whisperer

January 13, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When the University of Nebraska tapped Tim Miles to take over as head coach of the men’s basketball program in early 2012, Nebraska fans everywhere let out a collective “huh?” But in less than three years at the helm of a sport-that-is-not-football, Miles has gone from “Coach Who?” to “Coach Cool.”

The reigning National Coach of the Year and Big Ten Coach of the Year can’t get two steps from his shiny black Escalade in downtown Lincoln without someone shouting his name, shaking his hand, or asking him to share a selfie. Miles never turns down a photo request (except once in a men’s room when he politely asked the guy to wait outside) and his face is plastered all over Twitter and Instagram. His boyish exuberance, mega-watt smile, and social media savvy make Miles approachable, while his quick wit and self-deprecating humor make him quotable.

That he delivers wins to a program starved for them makes this son of the Northern Plains a rock star. Last season the Huskers went on a tear, going 19-13 (11-7 in the Big Ten) and rode a surge into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. Though they lost to Baylor in the first round, the Huskers put the league on notice that they are no longer a cupcake game on their opponent’s schedule.

“There’s a thing all fans need to know, especially Husker fans,” says Miles, 48. “They can make a difference between winning and losing and they’ve already done it. We were 15-1 at home last season. We rattled the cages for basketball.”

What was it about the Nebraska job that attracted this married father of two? After all, the Huskers haven’t won a conference title since 1950. They’ve never won a March Madness game. The program was, well, underwhelming. But none of that mattered.

“I knew Nebraska was bigger than just football,” he explains. “You see how good the attendance is for all the sports; volleyball sells out. I thought all the resources were in place to be successful here. The facilities were lights-out.”

Lights out, indeed. When Miles interviewed to replace 6th-year head coach Doc Sadler, fired after yet another disappointing season, Nebraska’s decision to sink serious money into the program was evident in a new $20 million practice facility. The state-of-the-art Hendricks Training Complex boasts enough technology and electronic gadgetry to make NASA jealous. And construction was already underway on Husker basketball’s new home, the $180 million, 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Miles knew the state of Nebraska doesn’t yet produce an abundant crop of high quality Division I basketball players on an annual basis, “so I told [the interview committee], ‘you can’t say no to me when it comes to recruiting. We have to travel.’ And we’ve been able to do that.” In November, Miles announced the 2015 recruitment class, one of the strongest in program history.

What did Nebraska see in a man whose basketball pedigree is humble? Miles would have us believe, “It’s the photogenic fake teeth,” he says in one of his trademark off-the-wall answers. “I bought these. I had to. They got knocked out in a kickball game in fifth grade.” Miles then demonstrates how the dentist jammed the original front teeth back into his gums, “but they eventually turned yellow and grey: dead. So I got veneers when I got the coaching job at North Dakota State (2001-2007) so I could smile for the cameras.”

A more plausible answer: the committee, headed by then-athletic director and football coaching legend Tom Osborne, smelled a winner. In his previous four head coaching gigs at small colleges in small leagues with bare-bones budgets, Miles transformed squads in a tailspin into contenders, slaying Goliaths along the way—pretty good for a hyperactive kid and the youngest of five from Doland, S.D., whose parents published the local newspaper.

Where does he get his sense of humor? “Probably from my Mom,” he says over a pizza lunch. “She could always deliver a punch line.”

He rode the bench for most of his four years at the University of Mary in Bismarck, the only private Catholic college in North Dakota, giving him ample time to watch and study the game he has always loved. A physical education and elementary education major, Miles can break down complex ideas into the simplest terms and communicate them. He has a special gift for getting through to young people.

He also has a gift for molding a game plan to fit the talent of his team. “People will ask me, ‘what’s your style of play’ and I tell them, ‘winning.’ That’s the only system I have,” he deadpans.

It’s a system that now brings sellout crowds and national attention to Lincoln—even after football season. Can a coveted March victory be far behind?


Ethan Wragge

October 26, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ethan Wragge was a driving force behind the Creighton University Bluejays’ success as they stormed the Big East during their inaugural season in the vaunted conference where hoops is king. Now the recent graduate is storming the halls of big finance through his second internship with Burlington Capital Group.

The 6’7” center is 27th on the school’s all-time scoring list. His career 1,155 points is a figure that is apparently just shy of the number of times Burlington Capital co-workers have challenged him to a (friendly?) game of horse. His mark of 334 career three-pointers is second only to the legendary Kyle Korver’s 371.

Wragge isn’t just an overachiever when wearing the get-up he’s pictured in on these pages. The same tenacity was demonstrated in the classroom when the Academic All-American earned triple majors in finance, marketing, and entrepreneurship.

“Burlington Capital is such a great internship,” Wragge says, “because we do so many things here; real estate, international business, private equity markets, and more. The people here are competitive, just like I was competitive for the last 18 years of my life on a basketball court. They know how to win. They’re entrepreneurs who know what it takes to win in highly competitive markets.”

But Wragge isn’t done with basketball just quite yet. He’s currently rehabbing from post-season knee surgery as he eyes offers to turn pro in Europe.

Regardless of whether he ends up in shorts or pinstripes, Wragge says he will always have fond recollections of Omaha. His favorite on-court memory? “Easy,” he replies. “I will never forget Villanova. And we did it on their court,” he says of the game that was the first win in the program’s history over a top five team (the Wildcats were ranked No. 4 at the time).

“Omaha really drew me in,” he continues. “There’s a reason why I spent only a total of 60 days back home [in Eden Prairie, Minn.] during the five years I was here. What the team means to this community—the way they take you in and make you family—is the same as what this community means to me. And I’m also really going to miss the food here. Cheeseburgers at Dinker’s. California Tacos. Don’t get me started!”

Wragge was affectionately known as “The Beard” on the parquet floor of the CenturyLink Center Omaha. So does he now have a new nickname, one that is perhaps more fitting for the world of corporate America?

“Not really,” came his reply.

Okay, so how “not really” is that? Does he have a new moniker or not?

“Well,” he begins with the slightest hint—all but imperceptible—of downcast eyes and an “Aw shucks” shuffling of the feet. “Some of the guys here…well, some of the guys just call me “Spreadsheet Monkey.”


Kelsey Saddoris and Kayleigh Begley

April 29, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marriage proposals from secret admirers. Out-of-the-blue invitations to high school proms in distant states. Being dubbed “America’s Sweethearts.” Such are the lives of two of the city’s newest instant celebrities.

Being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated has the power to do that, you know.

Creighton University dance team members Kelsey Saddoris (left on previous page) and Kayleigh Begley were pictured flanking Bluejay senior Doug McDermott on the cover of the March 17 issue of the magazine. Saddoris is a pre-med junior from Ankeny, Iowa. Begley, a pre-law freshman, is the homegrown product of Millard North High School.

“This has all been like a dream,” says Begley. “This is my first year of college, and that has been a crazy enough experience in itself. But to be a part of the Creighton program in such an exciting year…and then Sports Illustrated…and now you guys. It’s just been a magical year.”

“The change to the Big East,” adds Saddoris, “has been huge for us. New logo. New mascot. New league. It’s been amazing fun. The response—not just to the magazine cover but to everything about Creighton’s success—has been just unbelievable.”

McDermott, the All-Everything “Dougie McBuckets,” led the nation in scoring with 26.7 points per game. He has since earned college basketball’s most prestigious honors in being named both the John R. Wooden Award Player of the Year and The Associated Press Player of the Year. His third first-team appearance on the AP’s All-America team makes him the first player to rack up a trio of such honors since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale did so in the 1980s. McDermott’s 3,150 career points places him a lofty No. 5 on college hoops’ all-time scoring list.

Savvy sports fans know that the Sports Illustrated cover was homage to its 1977 ancestor that featured Larry Bird striking the same pose with Indiana State cheerleaders. Both covers carried the same headline of “College Basketball’s Secret Weapon.”

The magazine hit newsstands during spring break and Omaha Magazine’s photo shoot took place the very day that classes resumed.

“Pretty weird out there today, but in a good way,” Begley says while mugging for the camera. “Campus was totally on fire today!”


Creighton vs. Villanova Win at Home

February 18, 2014 by
Photography by Joe Mixan Photography

Red Dawgs

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.”


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.

The Ralston Arena

November 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

While Ralston’s new $36 million arena is impressive, drawing big crowds and solid reviews, it isn’t getting too big for its britches.

“We’re not going to target the U2s or the Bruce Springsteens,” said Lynn Higgenbotham, marketing director for the arena. “But it’s a good size, a good fit.”

Modesty becomes it. The state-of-the-art arena can host 3,500 guests and easily accommodated the crowd for its October 19 opening concert with country singer Rodney Atkins.

Upcoming events include rodeos, UFC (Ultimate Fighting) matches, high school games, and trade shows. The arena will also host the USHL Lancers (attracted by not one, but two sheets of ice), the UNO men’s basketball team, the IFL Omaha Beef Football, the Omaha Roller Girls, and the LFL (Lingerie Football League) Omaha Heart. “They draw about 16,000 in other venues,” Higginbotham said of Omaha’s own LFL team.

20121106_bs_1919 copy

The arena sits at 73rd & Q streets in Ralston.

So the arena, at a quarter of that size, is hoping for a sell-out?

“That’s the goal, of course,” she said. While no event is too small for the arena, Higgenbotham said that its main purpose is to host major events. Direct competition with larger local facilities such as the Mid-America Center is, of course, out of the question. Such venues are able to seat twice as large a crowd. “The larger places can adapt themselves to a smaller theater setting,” she explained, but Ralston Arena is poised to set itself apart. “We want more diverse entertainment and sports events,” Higgenbotham said. “The Ralston residents really took ownership of this venue.”

That could be because, previously, there were no other event facilities in Ralston, according to Curtis Webb, general manager of Ralston Arena. “People would drive into Omaha for entertainment,” he said.

The arena, which broke ground June 29, 2011, on what used to be Lakeview Golf Course, is Ralston’s answer to a need for taxable income. Since 2008, Mayor Don Groesser had been attempting to attract a retailer onto the space with little luck. “We started talking with the Lancers about an arena,” Groesser said. Due to the scarcity of ice time in Omaha, the hockey team was excited about the idea of an arena with a few thousand seats.

“We want more diverse entertainment and sports events.” – Lynn Higgenbotham, marketing director for Ralston Arena

“Now that it’s here,” Webb said, “the venue should drive sales tax in the form of tickets, food, and beverage.” To pay down the debt of building the arena, LB 779 (or the Ralston Bill as it was known by the time it passed in 2010) puts 70 percent of the state’s portion of sales tax from any retailer within 600 yards of the arena toward the arena’s bill. As Groesser put it, “That’s basically how we’re going to pay for the building.”

As a result of this legislation, Groesser and Webb are encouraging more businesses to build within that 600-yard range of the arena. “We just got Menards to build on 72nd and L,” Groesser said. He also plans to introduce a new four-story hotel next to the facility, the first floor of which will be shops along the lines of salons, clothing, and convenience. “So another 10,000 square feet of retail,” he said. Add that on to the 4,600 square feet leased by The Dugout (clothing store) inside the arena, itself.

“We need all the new retail we can possibly get,” Groesser explained. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve tried to make sure of that.”

For more information about Ralston Arena, visit ralstonarena.com.