MIDVALE — A clash of wheelchair basketball teams from around the country had the floors rumbling at the Copperview Recreation Center this weekend for the first Turkey Shoot Tournament.
The three-day competition featured nine adult teams from the National Wheelchair Basketball Association's elite Championship Division and four Junior League teams whose players are 15-21.
Salt Lake's own Wheelin' Jazz — celebrating 20 years in a league begun in 1948 — are currently ranked No. 3 in the top division. After dropping their Friday game to the No. 2 Dallas Mavericks, the Jazz faced a young, and fast, college team from Arizona Saturday.
Just moments into the duel, Salt Lake's team captain, Jeff Griffin, launched a perfectly arced 3-pointer that hardly moved the net as it swished through the basket.
The shot was a foreshadowing of the groove Griffin would get into — and never really get out of — as he went on to score 46 in a close but losing effort against the University of Arizona Wildchairs. After the game, Wheelin' Jazz founder and team member Mike Schlappi described Griffin's performance as one of a kind.
"It was more than outstanding," Schlappi said. "It was more points than I've seen anybody on this team score, ever."
And Schlappi would know. The 46-year-old started the team two decades ago and has played every year. His athletic resume includes four Paralympic basketball appearances (where he's won two gold medals) and two world championships. For Schlappi, it's a sport whose meaning goes much deeper than the competition he loves. After an accidental shooting left him paralyzed below the waist at 14, playing basketball was an idea suggested by a rehabilitation specialist — and one that helped him deal with the traumatic injury.
"It made a huge difference," Schlappi said. "Being able to continue to be an athlete … and compete in wheelchair sports was an enormous boost to my self-worth."
Ryan Wright, a Denver youth who, at 15, is just a year older than Schlappi was when he lost the use of his legs, hasn't had to deal with a change in physical abilities — he was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes spinal malformations. This weekend, Wright was playing for both the adult and junior league teams from Denver. His grandparents, Steve and Anne Wright, also of Denver, were in Utah for the tournament and said Ryan has been playing basketball since he was 7 and has never let his physical challenges slow him down.
"Ryan has always loved sports," Anne Wright said. "He skis, plays basketball and is hoping for a college scholarship."
That scholarship is a real possibility, as Ryan has already attended an invitation-only basketball camp sponsored by the University of Illinois. His grandfather said wheelchair basketball has, over recent years, started to get recognition by some universities.
"It's become just like other college sports at some schools," Steve Wright said. "Scholarships are available, and they're looking for high-quality players to recruit."
That kind of recognition, and high participation rates, are elevating the game, Griffin said.
"These college teams have kids that have been playing for years," Griffin said. "They are tall, fast, skilled, have great attitudes and spend a lot of time in the gym."
That fitness and skill level seemed to get the best of Griffin's team on Saturday. While a shot by Griffin tied the game at 74 with just over a minute to play, the youngsters from Arizona rallied with a couple of quick baskets and made the most of a slew of foul shots in the final minute to top the Wheelin' Jazz, 83-74.
Griffin, who, at 36, more than held his own against the college squad, wasn't ready to relish his standout performance after the game.
"I'm not really feeling anything about scoring 46 in a loss," Griffin said. "I'm looking forward to someday scoring 50 in a win."
To see a video of the Wheelin' Jazz, (click here).