Wheelchair basketball program history, prestige attracts veterans

From left to right, senior Blake McMinn, sophomore Ray Hennagir, sophomore Rachel Wakefield and freshman Zach Blair are shown in the Physical Education Building on Nov. 6. The four Movin’ Mavs athletes are veterans of different military branches.

Intensity, energy, discipline. 

These are the attributes that military veterans add to the Movin’ Mavs wheelchair basketball programs.

“They embrace the suck,” said Doug Garner, Movin’ Mavs head coach. “They embrace getting in there and getting dirty and doing the hard work, and that really sets an example.”

For the 2018-19 season, senior Blake McMinn, junior Antoine Gray, sophomore Ray Hennagir and freshman Zach Blair make up the veterans on the Movin’ Mavs. Sophomore Rachel Wakefield is the solitary veteran on the Lady Movin’ Mavs.

Newcomers Wakefield, Blair and Hennagir all said the teams’ histories, prestige and level of play attracted them to UTA.

Blair described the program as the “Mecca” of collegiate wheelchair basketball.

After spending a year at the University of Arizona, Wakefield transferred to UTA because the Arizona heat didn’t help her heart condition.

Wakefield lives with POTS, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a blood disorder that prevents blood from flowing naturally, and her condition is affected by body movement, such as standing or lying down.

Wakefield said Texas’ milder temperatures and the Lady Movin’ Mavs’ “dynamic play” drew her to UTA.

“To my surprise when I got here, they’re also very friendly to veterans,” Wakefield said.

Gray met Garner in 2015, when the National Veterans Wheelchair Games were hosted in Dallas, and he gave Gray the opportunity to come join the Movin’ Mavs.

Gray said in the years prior to him finding wheelchair basketball, he struggled with his disability but found comfort in faith.

Having been in a car accident that led to the amputation of his legs, Gray said he learned to thank God for his accident after years of sliding downhill mentally and spiritually.

Since his arrival at UTA, Gray says his faith helps him work to get better, but admits that perfection is impossible.

“I’ll never be perfect like Christ was, but that don’t mean I gotta stop striving for it,” Gray said. “With basketball, or pretty much with any other sport, there’s no such thing as a perfect athlete.”

Garner said the Movin’ Mavs’ relationship with disabled military veterans started in 2012.

The formerly-named Warrior Transition Command, now the Warrior Care and Transition Program, asked Garner to host a wheelchair basketball clinic with the Army.  

This came a year after Garner was asked to coach the Army wheelchair basketball team at the 2011 Warrior Games.

McMinn, whose first stint at UTA was in 2010-11 and 2011-12, joined Garner for the Warrior Games, along with former teammates Anthony Pone and now assistant coach Juan Soto.

“It was great because I already knew his coaching style and we just all went in there and just meshed really good and clicked really good,” McMinn said.

Under Garner, the Army wheelchair basketball team won three consecutive gold medals from 2011 to 2013. 

Hennagir and Blair, both Marine Corps veterans, also played in various editions of the Warrior Games, winning two gold medals each: Hennagir in the 2010 and 2015 games and Blair in 2014 and 2015.

Hennagir, however, may have played a major part in the event’s creation.

Hennagir was playing with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center team in Washington D.C. in 2009. 

Under Jim Glatch, former Team USA under-23 coach, Hennagir’s team entered local tournaments and beat sanctioned National Wheelchair Basketball Association teams.

This led them to gain recognition from former President Barack Obama in November 2009, Hennagir said.

Obama invited the “Wounded Warriors” for a pick-up game later that month at the White House.

However, since only Marines were invited to meet the now-former president, this made the Army soldiers at Walter Reed jealous, Hennagir said.

They wanted to show that they deserved to be invited, too.

By May 2010, this inter-military rivalry ultimately culminated with the Warrior Games, with the inaugural games in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Garner’s involvement within the Warrior Games and the presence of UTA’s wheelchair basketball program led him to partner with the NWBA in 2015 to start Operation Rebound, a program to directly help military service members by taking part in camps and clinics for wounded veterans.

Garner said he wanted to give back to military service members because he saw how many young soldiers would fight for the liberties of America.

Some would ultimately end up under Garner’s guidance here with the Movin’ Mavs teams.

“That really made an impact on me, so I wanted to do what I could to help as many veterans find the sport of wheelchair basketball,” he said.

@_julio_vega

sports-editor.shorthorn@uta.edu

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