Wheelchair basketball alums band together for worthy cause
- Wheelchair Basketball
- Mike Frogley
- Matt Buchi
- University of Illinois
- College of Applied Health Sciences
By ETHAN SIMMONS
In the heat of an Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball season, intense morning practices roll into sociable team meals and lively late-night gaming sessions. The hours spent between busy student-athlete schedules—on buses and dorm rooms—are where teammates became brothers.
For all that the Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball teams of the early 2010s accomplished on the court—a National Wheelchair Basketball Association intercollegiate championship and three second-place finishes under former Coach Mike Frogley and Coach Matt Buchi—they’ve surpassed that off it, starting careers and raising families.
Now, the alums of this so-called “Band of Brothers” have come together once more to support the next generation of Illini wheelchair sport athletes through the establishment of an annual scholarship.
Their contributions, through “The Fighting Illini Wheelchair Basketball Alumni Legacy Scholarship Fund,” have been granted to two wheelchair basketball athletes in the past two terms.
“This scholarship is born from people that truly love each other and care about the future of the program at the University of Illinois,” said Mak Nong, former Illinois wheelchair basketball player and founder of the fund. “For us to be able to give back and make things easier for the future generation, that’s our moral obligation: to make this place even better than it was for us.”
The most recent recipient, rising senior Mary Wagstaff of the women’s wheelchair basketball team, used the $1,200 to pay out the remainder of her spring semester tuition.
Wagstaff “was both surprised and extremely honored” to receive the recognition, she said. Men’s team junior Martrell Stevens, now a team co-captain, received the inaugural sum in 2022.
For the alumni who funded this scholarship, it represents a continued commitment to growing the game of wheelchair basketball. Many have taken jobs in the field of adaptive athletics, managing sports programs designed for children and adults with disabilities.
Moreover, the fund honors what money can’t capture: the enduring teachings from their coaches and tight teammate bonds that have carried far beyond their last plays on the basketball floor.
“I think at a certain point towards the end of our run, we started realizing these really were the golden years,” Nong said. “But even now, establishing the scholarship and still talking as adults, we’re making the platinum era now, right?”
Maureen Gilbert wears many hats as coordinator for the Office of Campus Life at Disability Resources and Educational Services, better known as DRES. To more than 29 classes of Illinois wheelchair student-athletes, she’s “Mo,” director of their athletic programs, point-person for travel and eligibility questions and trusted confidante. Some lovingly call her “Mom.”
On bus rides with track and field and basketball events, one can usually tell if the team is gelling off the floor, Gilbert said. Team chemistry always takes work to develop, but some teams bond faster than others.
“Once in a while, you get those athletes who seem to click and they make it happen themselves,” Gilbert said. “Like with Mak’s group.”
Martinez Johnson joined the team in 2013 as a transfer student from Atlanta. It didn’t take long for the memories to start stacking up with his teammates.
“[We’d] just hang out and make sure we were doing our best to balance our social life, school and basketball,” Johnson said. “And we leaned on each other to make sure everyone was doing OK mentally as well.”
Just before the school year, Johnson recalls the team traveling to the 4H campground of Allerton Park for several memorable exercises. In what’s now a yearly tradition under Coach Buchi, the players wrote down their individual fears for the season before throwing them into a burning campfire.
“When I came in 10 years ago as a coach, that was one of the first things that I tried to do: have a bonding experience to learn about each other outside of basketball,” Buchi said. “And that's what really bonds a lot of these guys for a lifetime, a comfortable place to be vulnerable as young men with our team.
“That bonding took a while to get there, but it just needed activities and locations to blossom.”
Jacob Tyree’s favorite memories with the team tend to revolve around food: morning rushes to Original House of Pancakes or Merry Ann’s Diner after long, physical practices, or cherished visits to Cravings, the Asian cuisine restaurant.
“It could be a really crappy practice, like maybe things just were not clicking on the court—coach is yelling at you for things, your teammates are yelling at you for things—and then you go out afterwards and it’s now a positive bonding experience,” Tyree said.
As the teammates graduated and dispersed across the country and the world, those relationships stayed strong.
A random, gloomy day in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic led Nong to check in with many of his old teammates. He’d been pondering ways to give back to the things “he truly cared about,” and Illinois neared the top of Nong’s list.
His calls gave way to proposals: “Would you want to contribute to a scholarship?”
After checking with DRES and the College of Applied Health Sciences advancement team, the groundwork was laid.
“Mak took the lead on all of that,” Gilbert said. “In fact, it was a great gift when they told me what they were doing. It gives a good example to our current students of paying forward and how to support those who come after you.”
The generosity didn’t stop with the scholarship, either. In the spring, program alumni used crowdfunding to finance customized, tailored suit jackets for the graduating seniors on the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams.
“It was a surreal full circle moment to see my alumni, the guys that I coached, are now taking care of the players that I'm coaching now,” Buchi said.
Life After Basketball
After graduating in 2017, Nong played professional wheelchair basketball in Europe for a spell, winning a league championship for LUC Handibasket in Lille, France. What stuck with him was the governance over the sport that was present overseas.
“To them, it was just sport. People without disabilities were playing wheelchair basketball and getting paid to do it,” Nong said. “So, I was thinking, ‘How do I spread this joy to people?’ Recreation is a big opportunity for that.”
Years after graduating, many members of the wheelchair basketball teams have stayed in the orbit of adaptive sports, committing time and effort to growing the scene in myriad ways.
Nong is a program manager for Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA) in Lake Forest, Ill., overseeing a wide range of sports programs—from football, tennis, track and field, swimming, soccer—suited to disabled athletes of all ages.
His journey truly began as a young boy pushing along his wheelchair in Los Cerritos Mall near Long Beach, Calif. Longtime coach Lisa Hilborn noticed Nong and asked if he’d be interested in trying wheelchair sports.
“I didn’t want to do it at all, I was freaking out, but then I went to a practice and I fell in love with it and kept going back,” Nong said. “I’m trying to spread the love she gave to me to other people.”
By the time he was a senior in high school, Nong was heavily recruited for wheelchair basketball. Coach Frogley’s pitch from the University of Illinois stood out from the pack.
“He stressed the importance of education, he catered to me as not only a person but an athlete as well. Just having that balance and showing that we can use sport as a tool to get to where our success is,” Nong said.
Tyree, too, has found a career in the field as training coordinator for Move United, a nonprofit committed to facilitating adaptive sports opportunities. He returned to his hometown of Roanoke, Va., to found the Roanoke Stars Wheelchair Basketball program.
Like other program alums, he repeatedly credits his coaches’ attention to detail for his professional success.
“We all saw ourselves as having our roles, and thought about how do we support each other to fill in the gaps where this is my weakness, but that's your strength? When I'm struggling, I can lean on you a little bit more,” Tyree said. “I think that that mindset really fell into creating that excellence and trickled into what we do full-time.”
Alums who haven’t found careers in adaptive athletics have stayed around the game in some way, like Derek Hoot and Johnson, who started recording podcasts about it.
In the “Push Podcast,” the pair of alums discuss the happenings of U.S. wheelchair basketball and bring on established guests. The duo wants to break its hiatus soon, Johnson said.
“Wheelchair basketball has made a big impact on all our lives. Being able to find a sports community as individuals with disabilities is huge,” Johnson said. “I think that’s a big reason we have all stuck around adaptive athletics, is we know the change it made in our lives could be duplicated for the next generation.”
Buchi subscribes to the coaching axiom that a “successful season” can’t be determined until the players leave the program and grow into adults. Ten years in, those seeds are starting to sprout: Buchi is beginning to see talented recruits who’ve been coached by his own wheelchair basketball alums.
“The next step is happening, I have so many of my guys that are actually coaching and are giving back to juniors programs,” Buchi said. “They get to put a little bit of our Illinois stamp on these kids before I even get them.
“Our alumni need to think as soon as they graduate, how do I give back to the guys that are coming up next? Because there's always going to be that next person that comes up and you want them to have the best experience possible.”