PORT NECHES —
Not many people can claim to be a national champion and an Olympic hopeful before they graduate from high school.
On Tuesday, Port Neches-Groves senior Kyle Huckaby added college signee to his list of accomplishments. He becomes the first Indian in quite a while to sign to play college basketball.
Huckaby just happened to accomplish all that while sitting down.
The senior plays wheelchair basketball for a travel team based out of Houston. In their 15th year, the Houston Hotwheels compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball League. Huckaby joined the team three years ago after meeting one of the players at a yearly doctor’s visit.
“I was at a hospital for an annual checkup,” Huckaby said. “I met one of the players and he invited me to this summer camp. It all started with that. From there, I met the coach and she told me where they practice. It snowballed from there.”
Huckaby was born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spine. The name translates to “split spine,” and it prevents Huckaby from walking for more than just a short while with braces. It has not, however, kept him from competing at the highest levels.
In addition to exceling at wheelchair basketball, Huckaby is also on the USA developmental team for sled hockey with hopes to compete in the 2014 Games in Sochi. That was one of the reasons he chose to sign with the University of Texas-Arlington, as there is a hockey team in the Dallas area that Huckaby can train with while playing collegiate basketball.
“That was one of the draws,” Huckaby said. “With all the other colleges, I looked for hockey teams nearby. I wanted to keep that going. Being on the USA developmental team is pretty big. It’s close to being up there already. I didn’t want to give that up altogether to play basketball in college. To be able to play both sports was a major reason why I chose UTA.”
Wheelchair basketball is governed by NCAA rules. It’s played on a regulation court with players rebounding, shooting and playing defense like any others. The key difference is in the traveling rule. Players don’t have to continuously dribble, though most of the Hotwheels players can, but they do have to dribble on every second push. Otherwise, they get called for traveling.
Oh, and wheelchair basketball is not for the faint of heart, according to head coach Genny Gomez.
“The game is played just as competitively as you see on TV, if not a little harder,” Gomez said. “It seems a lot rougher because you have the chair contact. You hear that metal-on-metal sound. That’s pretty cool.
“You have tires that blow. You have kids that fall down. The only time they stop the game for a player down, though, is if they’re in danger of getting trampled. If they fall and the play is going away from them, they keep playing and it’s 4 on 5. It’s a very competitive game.”
Gomez is in her seventh year coaching the team that is sponsored by TIRR Memorial Hermann. She travels with the team all over and has seen 10 athletes in the past seven years go on to play collegiately at one of 13 different programs around the country.
She’s also led the team to two straight national championship appearances. After falling short last year, the Houston squad took care of business this year.
“We came in very confident,” Gomez said. “The kids worked hard all season knowing they had the No. 1 title and they wanted to hold onto it. They didn’t want to be in the situation they were in last year, when they faced Nebraska. They had a 12-point lead going into the half and we lost by eight.
“This year, we focused on what we needed to do to win. They worked all season long. They conditioned for about an hour and a half every practice and then worked on skills and little things that help win games. Leading up to the championship, we won three games pretty consistently, which gave our kids a lot of confidence.
“They pushed and they pushed and never stopped playing hard. Going into the half this year, we led by 19 points and finished with a 17-point win. It was a great tournament and a great game.”
Gomez led the camp where Huckaby first discovered wheelchair basketball. He said it only took him a day to fall in love with the sport, despite how tough it can be.
“It’s not like regular basketball,” Huckaby said. “It’s completely contact. You’ve got chairs going everywhere. Your fingers are messed up and you have blisters everywhere. You have guys hitting each other. It’s just part of the game.
“The first day, I didn’t know what I was doing. Midway through the camp, I thought I could start getting into it. I came home afterwards and decided I wanted to start playing more. It snowballed from there.”
It takes some dedication to compete, too. Huckaby has driven 90 minutes each way to Houston to practice three times a week.
“It gets hard sometimes with homework,” Huckaby said. “If you want it bad enough, though, you make it work.”
Though there aren’t “positions” in wheelchair basketball, Huckaby plays low forward and shooting guard. He says his biggest strength is shooting the ball from the outside.
“I’ve shot around all my life,” Huckaby said. “I like to sit behind screens and shoot. Bank shots, outside shots, it doesn’t matter.”
Still, basketball is a team game. Huckaby has some fond memories of his national championship, but the reason they won is how well they worked as a team. That same team gave him a sense of belonging, a sense of normalcy that drew him in as much as the competition.
“It’s a strong team game,” Huckaby said. “You can’t do anything without your teammates. They’re from the same place you are. We’re all disabled. We’re all on the same level. We understand each other’s stories. We’re all, not different, we’re the same.”
On Tuesday, Huckaby was just like any other high school athlete at Port Neches-Groves. He sat next to classmate Jarrod Brown, who signed with Mary Hardin-Baylor to play golf, in front of the giant Cherokee Indian head painted on the wall of the competition gym.
He was just like all those other athletes who have signed over the year, with one exception.
How many of them have won national championships?