Utah Wheelin' Jazz players compete at 3-on-3 tourney

By Randall Wade

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Aug. 27 2011 9:45 p.m. MDT

This is the first of a two-part series documenting four Jazz players' quest to win this summer's Nike 3-on-3 championship in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES — Sports scandals, negotiating nincompoops and soaring summer temperatures have dehydrated the sports landscape, leaving fans parched for news that's not drowning in lockouts, labor issues or universities that are willful violators.

While some sports fans have savored the recent return of the NFL, it's doubtful that the NBA and the Utah Jazz fan's thirst for news of a similar return will be quenched before the end of the calendar year.

However, in an unprecedented move, four Jazz players trying to keep their skills sharp went to compete in the 3rd Annual Nike 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament in Los Angeles, Aug. 6-7.

Jeff Griffin, Layne Mangum, Tyler Lathem and Sam Blakely are names fans won't find on last year's roster and even the most die-hard Utah Jazz fan probably won't recognize these guys; that is unless you're a fan of the wheelchair NBA and the Utah Wheelin' Jazz.

Griffin is the heart, soul and face of the Utah Wheelin' Jazz. He's cast from the same physical mold as Karl Malone.

Mangum resembles a long-time Jazz superfan, with the mouth to match.

Lathem and his physique could easily be mistaken on Salt Lake City streets for that of Matt Harpring and in the Hollywood Hills for Matt Damon.

Blakely is the young up-and-coming southpaw superstar, transitioning from the juniors to the adult team. According to Griffin, Blakely "has the whole package and the body to be a star in this league."

I followed Griffin and his other Wheelin' Jazz cohorts for 48 hours where 20+ of which were used to drive to Los Angeles and back in a truck with a camper in tow so they could camp out for two days of what would essentially become their summer basketball training camp.

The Wheelin' Jazz left on a Friday afternoon, slept at a campground to save money, competed Saturday and Sunday morning, before making the drive back to Salt Lake City in time for work the following Monday morning.

Despite the trip, all is not well with the Wheelin' Jazz.

It will take more than Griffin's bulging biceps and chiseled chest to overcome this summer's leadership and money issues, some of which have fractured the core management members, team moral and relegated one long-time member to look for another team.

Will this Los Angeles trip begin the process of building broken bridges and healing hurt feelings? Or will the camper's tight quarters, summer heat and the strain of competition lead to more meltdowns, anguish and aggravation that further divides the team?

Griffin must use his mind over his muscle to avoid the same unraveling fate as the able-bodied NBA and Utah Jazz. Can he bring the team back together as the 2011-12 season hangs in the balance?

FRIDAY, 11 A.M. MST

The Wheelin' Jazz are already running 90 minutes late.

Mangum's house is the meeting place nestled close to the golfer's paradise of Thanksgiving Point. He is one of the original members of the Wheelin' Jazz and his house is the furthest south. He's heading up this trip and it's his truck they'll all have to pile into for their 10+ hour drive to Los Angeles.

Griffin only has to come a few miles from West Jordan, while Blakely is coming from east of Park City, Utah, some 45 miles away and Lathem isn't any closer, coming from Ogden, Utah, some 60+ miles away.

Surprisingly, not everyone who plays wheelchair basketball is actually confined to a chair. Some players have single- or double-leg amputations and get around on crutches. While others have a diagnosis that isn't as visible. Mangum is one of those players.

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