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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Free wheelin:’ EWU wheelchair basketball team, community kick off Hoopfest’s return

Eastern Washington’s wheelchair basketball team captain Bob Hunt eyes a shot during an exhibition game in Spokane on Friday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Hoopfest made its return from the pandemic on wheels Friday.

Three members of the Eastern Washington University wheelchair basketball team, community leaders and members of the public strapped into wheelchairs for an exhibition game at Hoopfest’s Center Court outside the U.S. Pavilion at Riverfront Park.

Some of the participants included Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier, American Ninja Warrior and former Gonzaga point guard Sandy Zimmerman and KHQ anchor Sam Adams.

Zimmerman scored a couple buckets, including a layup to start the game after a nice cut to the hoop. But the former point guard said she was more proud of her assists.

“This was just a cool opportunity to get out there and get to see some great athletes,” she said.

Zimmerman said she realized wheelchair basketball is very similar to the sport she excelled at. Backdoor cuts, give-and-go’s, screens – they’re all used in both sports.

She said one difference is she had to use her arms as her main source of power instead of her legs to shoot in the wheelchair. She said she learned a rolling start to the hoop helped power her shot toward the basket.

“I think anytime you can try to put yourself in somebody else’s situation, it always gives you a better understanding,” Zimmerman said.

Bob Hunt, one of the three EWU players Friday, said he loves the team environment and culture the new team is building. The team’s first season was in 2020, and the players just completed their first full season without COVID-19 interruptions this year.

“We are here to show people that we’re not here just for fun,” Hunt said. “We are (like) every other varsity team at Eastern.”

David Evjen, head coach of the EWU wheelchair basketball team, said there’s some differences in wheelchair basketball compared to the regular game people watch on television, but “basketball is basketball. These guys are hoopers.”

“It’s all the same,” he said. “It just looks a little different.”

The team is part of EWU’s Adaptive Athletics program, which established the first collegiate National Wheelchair Basketball Association team in the Northwest.

Donna Mann, interim dean of the College of Health Science and Public Health, said she started the team by finding funds through grants and donors.

Mann said she wants the community to get behind the team, and Friday’s showcase was a way to do that.

“Our mission is to create an avenue to college for any athlete, right? And the Adaptive Athletics program, that’s what it does for us,” she said. “It just shows those with disabilities, whether they were born with them or acquired them, that there’s a place for them at EWU, and they can play collegiate sports like anyone else can.”

Lance Kissler, associate vice president of University Relations, said the school wanted to put on the event at last year’s Hoopfest, but the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans.

“We thought that this would be a great way to bring it out to the community and showcase what we have at the university,” Kissler said.

New EWU President Shari McMahan moved to the region Tuesday and gathered in her first Hoopfest experience Friday.

“Everybody has a right to play competitive sports, and this gives them an opportunity,” McMahan said of the wheelchair team.