On a Serious Roll
The franchise's first Championship wasn’t watched by millions across the globe, won’t pump countless dollars into The Q’s coffers, and didn’t shock the sporting world. But that doesn’t make the title that the Wheelchair Cavaliers took last weekend any less inspiring.
In fact, if LeBron and the Cavaliers are able to win the NBA Championship in the dramatic fashion that their wheelchair counterparts did last weekend in Colorado, it’ll be one for the history books.
The Title – After losing by five points to the Detroit Diehards – (a team Cleveland was quite familiar with) – in the early rounds of the NWBA Division III Tournament in Denver, the Cavaliers had to reach the Finals the hard way: through the loser’s bracket.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Down to just six players due to injury, the Wine and Gold were forced to play three games on Friday. And one-by-one, they eliminated the competition – dropping a trio of nationally-ranked teams in order (and all by double-digits).
“We left that last game on Friday with a real confidence among the group, knowing what we had to do,” said Head Coach Tim Fox. “And we just accomplished a feat that nobody would have given us a chance to.”
That feat was knocking off the heavyweight club from Detroit – featuring a pair of Paralympians: Daryl “Tree” Waller and Mo Phillips.
In the Championship game, Fox thought his team came out more relaxed than at any time during the tournament. “It’s funny, but we came out looser during the Championship game than in the earlier rounds. And I think battling our way through the loser’s bracket helped our team cohesiveness.”
That “loose” group had come too far to be stopped on Saturday – countering a 33-point effort by Detroit’s Tree Waller with 22 points from Will Waller and 20 more by veteran Juan Woidtke.
When the smoke cleared, the Cavaliers had won four straight contests – including the 54-48 win to secure the Division III Championship.
The Coach – In his post at the helm of the Wheelchair Cavaliers, Tim Fox brought his profession and his passion together to reach the ultimate goal.
Fox began as a student-assistant basketball coach for Baldwin-Wallace’s men’s hoops. Upon graduation, he became a teacher and was hired on as full-time assistant with B-W’s women’s team.
In 1999, Fox took a full-time position as the Director of Recreational Services with the Achievement Centers for Children, running the programs at “Camp Cheerful” which serves children and adults with physical and/or cognitive disabilities.
During that time, Fox had gotten to know some of the Wheelchair Cavaliers and when their coach resigned in 2007, he took the reigns.
“The opportunity was perfect – not only with my full-time job, but with the passion and love I’ve always had for the game of basketball,” explained Fox. “It gave me the best of both worlds – still doing things within the scope of what I do on a full-time job, and bringing back something I had been doing for about seven years.”
Three years later, Tim Fox and his shorthanded band of Cavaliers were crowned National Champions.
The Team – This year’s Cavaliers team was different than in years’ past. Because of injuries, they traveled with only six players.
Of those six, there were three guys who’d played together for years – Juan Woidtke, Steve Smutak and Shawn Kravchuck. Joining the veterans was Drew Lacko – who’d taken a year off before playing four seasons with Cleveland – and 17-year-old Dan Lemmer, who had been playing for just over a year and, according to Fox, was “still developing, learning the game, learning the chair skills.”
Rounding out the squad was Will Waller, a U.S. National Team member and former Paralympic athlete who had taken five-year absence from the team to start a family and deal with some medical issues.
The rigors of the season and the tournament were probably toughest on Lemmer, by far the team’s youngest player. But Fox always encourages his players to ask for a bigger role with the team. Lemmer got that, and capitalized.
“He was so happy and so excited with what we were able to accomplish,” beamed Fox. “But it also added that motivation for him, physically, because he wants to take a bigger role – which is a great thing.”
The Future – For the next few weeks, the Wheelchair Cavaliers will be watching their NBA counterparts try to take the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But then it’s right back to work.
“Even though we won the Championship, we know that there are areas we need to improve,” added Fox. “And next year, we’ll have a target on our backs and everyone will look to knock us off any chance they get.”
Mostly, Fox says they’ll focus on bringing the young guys along.
“We need to develop Dan and Drew. And we have some other younger kids that are practicing with us who are brand new and have just been playing for three or four years. It’s going to be much harder to get playing time, with more than six guys. But we need a little bit more depth; we need to develop that.”
In all aspects, the Wine and Gold strive for the ultimate goal – from LeBron James to Will Waller; from 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal to 17-year-old Dan Lemmer. It’s all in the family.
“Wherever we go to play in a tournament, we’re always asked, ‘Who are you sponsored by?’ And our guys are very proud to say: ‘We are a part of the Cavaliers organization.’”