On a roll: Wheelin' Jazz, Schlappi ready for their first Final Four

Published: Thursday, April 3 2008 12:17 a.m. MDT

Mike Schlappi, right, looks for a pass under pressure from Rodney Niemann, left, and Danny Quintana during a practice for the Utah Wheelin' Jazz basketball team.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

This is a really good week to be a member of the Wheelin' Jazz. And it's an especially good time if you're on Utah's elite wheelchair basketball team and your name happens to be Mike Schlappi.

Just how good?

To make a comparison to their non-wheelin' namesakes, this week for them would almost be like the Utah Jazz making their first-ever NBA Finals appearance while simultaneously having a team legend like John Stockton receive his Hall of Fame honors.

Yep, life is about that good for Schlappi and his teammates.

Considered the Stockton of his Jazz squad, Schlappi will be inducted into the Hall of Fame for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association at a ceremony Saturday night in Lexington, Ky.

And his Wheelin' Jazz might be celebrating a National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament championship by that time, too. The team is also in Kentucky this weekend, competing for Utah's first-ever NWBA title, making the busy weekend "all the more extra special" for Schlappi.

The savvy point guard said he is experiencing some mixed emotions — from excitement, nerves, nostalgia and gratitude to a strong desire to keep playing and participating.

"To be inducted in the Hall of Fame is just a wonderful thing. It's a neat feeling," Schlappi said. "It's absolutely an honor. I've put my heart and soul into this game for 30 years. ... But the sport has given me a whole lot more than I've given it."

The 45-year-old Schlappi, who lost the use of his legs after accidentally getting shot by a friend three decades ago, certainly has an impressive resume. He started the Wheelin' Jazz in 1990 after being a key member of the NWBA power and champion Casa Colina Condors in California. He was also a four-time Paralympic athlete, helping Team USA win two golds and two bronze medals at the Games in Atlanta, Barcelona, Seoul and Sydney.

Schlappi called the "amazing" Paralympic experiences the highlights of his career.

"I remember laying in a hospital bed in Provo, Utah, in 1977 (after the shooting accident)," he said. "I never thought I'd ever play sports again, let alone represent my country."

Jeff Griffin, one of the Wheelin' Jazz's top players and a Paralympic athlete himself, nominated Schlappi for the ultimate honor. Schlappi introduced the sport to the former Ricks College football player, who was paralyzed from the waist down after falling off a tall ladder while painting a house.

Not only has wheelchair basketball become an "enabling" activity and a "lifeline" for the 35-year-old Griffin, but Schlappi has become his cherished friend and mentor over the past decade. Though dreams of a BYU football career ended for Griffin, Schlappi helped him realize other dreams were still out there to accomplish.

"He's very, very deserving," said Griffin, whose day job is being an LDS seminary teacher at Brighton High. "Without him, there would be no Wheelin' Jazz."

He isn't the only one who touts Schlappi as the group's glue and a worthy Hall-of-Fame-caliber athlete.

"Can't even say how proud I am of the man. He's earned every accolade that he could ever get. ... He's a winner," Wheelin' Jazz coach Layne Mangum said. "He's been the backbone, the heart and soul of what we do here. He's the one that keeps our program alive."

Though deeply honored by the tribute, Schlappi also doesn't want his exciting personal moment to get in the way or overshadow his team's rare championship opportunity.

"My main priority," he said, "is we're trying to win a national championship with our team."

Participating in the Final Four for the first time in its 18-year history, the Wheelin' Jazz take on the NWBA Division II favorites, the three-time defending champion Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks, on Friday. The championship is Saturday. They won the West — and a semifinal ticket for the first time — by beating the Golden State Road Warriors 79-59 on March 16. "Finally!" was Schlappi's first thought.

"It's incredible," Mangum added. "We're very pleased. It's taken us a lot of years."

Mangum, who can walk but has nerve damage in his lower back and legs, is one of two original Wheelin' Jazzmen still with the team; Schlappi is the other. The eight current players and coach bring a diverse professional portfolio to the court. The team has a lawyer, a BYU professor, an LDS seminary teacher, a computer technician, a banker, a jeweler, a VA Hospital employee and a future popcorn salesman on its roster.

Then there's Schlappi, an author and traveling motivational speaker who they guesstimate has shared his inspiring story with about 400,000 Utah schoolchildren at assemblies.

After this weekend, the Wheelin' Jazz can also claim having a Hall of Famer and, they hope, nine national champions, too.


E-mail: jody@desnews.com

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