The Chair Bears claimed the title in Pitt’s inaugural 3-vs-3 Wheelchair Basketball Tournament last Saturday. The tournament featured 14 teams — a significant outcome for a school that had no program for adaptive sports just two years ago.
“We’re hoping to use this as an outreach effort and get people more aware of wheelchair basketball,” Chris Mielo, coach of the Pittsburgh SteelWheelers basketball team, said. “Also, we’re hoping to use it as a yearly fundraiser for not only the wheelchair basketball team here in Pittsburgh but also Students for Disability Advocacy.”
Pitt’s Department of Campus Recreation partnered with the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers — an adaptive sports organization that features both a rugby and basketball team in Pittsburgh — to host the double-elimination tournament event at Trees Hall over the weekend. The organizations gathered the teams to compete for the grand prize of tickets to the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in March.
The tournament is just the start of what SDA and Pitt Recreation plans to do with adaptive sports. Beyond the weekly practices at Bellefield Hall, the SDA has been raising money through grants and donations to purchase its own wheelchairs and eventually start a competitive adaptive basketball team at Pitt.
“We’ve raised about $17,000 for eight chairs, and we are still fundraising for two more so we can have two full teams play,” Brandon Daveler, a graduate student and the president of the SDA, said.
The Steelwheelers still lend a hand to Pitt Thursday nights, and the University has even had a few games for the Steelwheelers in Oakland.
“We’ve hosted Steelwheeler games up here a couple times, but this is the first tournament we wanted to do to involve the students,” Whitney Jones, assistant director of Campus Fitness, said.
The tournament Saturday not only helped adaptive sports gain more exposure on campus, but donations were given to the Steelwheelers to help them maintain their wheelchairs.
“We’re hoping that with any donations that we get, they can purchase new chairs and we can start this up into our intramural program within campus recreation,” Jones said. “That’s our end goal, hopefully.”
The University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers first connected in spring 2016 as Pitt worked to create an adaptive sports program.
Without the funds to purchase these custom wheelchairs, which can cost up to $2,000 each, Daveler reached out to the Steelwheelers for support.
“Initially, we didn’t have any equipment, and they allowed us to borrow some of their chairs during the practice we have every Thursday,” Daveler said.
In addition to lending wheelchairs, the Steelwheelers often attended weekly practices and provided coaching and mentorship to students looking to learn about adaptive sports.
The Steelwheelers challenged a few students from the crowd to a pickup wheelchair basketball game to raise awareness for the upcoming tournament during halftime at a recent Pitt men’s basketball game. Among the students selected from the crowd to play were first-year students Sam McCarren, Steve Kirk and Campbell Niehaus.
“We got destroyed the first time we played [the Steelwheelers], absolutely demolished,” McCaren said. “They make it look so simple with all of the little mechanics they are doing, but when you are actually in the wheelchair, you realize that it’s much more difficult.”
While these students may have been “destroyed” in front of thousands of fans, this experience sparked their interest. They had played basketball for years, but wheelchair basketball was a new way to enjoy the sport.
“It’s definitely different, especially because I’m 6’7.” So going all the way down, it’s a little challenging, but it’s a lot of fun,” McCaren said.
These three have since attended the weekly open gyms Thursdays, trying to learn to play the sport.
“At the open gyms, Mielo was kind of our coach and mentor,” McCaren said. “He taught us how to set picks and everything — do all of the basics.”
Campus Recreation and the Steelwheelers tried to replicate the experience of these three for many other students around Pitt at Saturday’s tournament.
While the first installment of this tournament was a success, this is just the beginning of what Pitt and the Steelwheelers hope will be a hallmark event on campus for years to come.
“It’s good for the first year, and we’re hoping for even bigger turnout next year,” Jones said.