TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It's a story of humor and humility, charisma and talent, plus passion.
The University of Alabama men’s wheelchair basketball team is one blessed with experienced leadership that knows what it takes to perform at the highest level. Having won back to back national championships in the last two years, expectations are no longer just to make the tournament, but to win it.
The Crimson Tide knows it takes hard work and experience, those things are givens. Things like charisma and heart are not, which it looks to from two veterans especially.
At 5-years-old, Ryan Jansen’s basketball career began with a flyer. Given to him by his elementary school principal, Jansen learned about a camp taking place at the University of Whitewater in Wisconsin. The youngest kid at camp, Jansen met Ryan Hynes, the current head coach of the Alabama women’s wheelchair basketball team who at the time was still in high school playing for the junior-varsity team in Milwaukee.
Hynes ultimately convinced Jansen to start playing at that camp. Seemingly all of his adolescent life, from the age of six to 17, was spent playing for the Milwaukee Wheelchair Bucks, a team that gained its affiliation with the NBA team during Jansen’s senior season.
“It’s always been the biggest thing in my life," he said. "I’m going to school to be a sports journalist. My dad was a coach, he was all-state hockey and football in the upper peninsula of Michigan. My mom did track so sports have always been a huge deal in my life.
"I love playing basketball, I love watching basketball, I love writing about basketball, like everything. Basketball is just a really unique way of actually getting the opportunity to be involved in athletics. When I first had my injury, the thing my dad was a little bummed about was that I may not be able to compete like he did and be able to share those memories with people as you’re growing up. Basketball really gave me that opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Lindy Bridges began playing able-bodied basketball at 10 until his accident at 16. His initial exposure to the game of wheelchair basketball was delayed when his rehab that was supposed to take place at Lakeshore – the same foundation where fellow seniors Rashad Bennett and Abraham Hausman-Weiss grew up playing – only to be dismissed from therapy before he was transferred.
It was while Bridges was volunteering at UAB with spinal-cord patients, the same clinic that he had been receiving treatment years earlier, that a former patient retuned to tell him about the opportunity at Lakeshore. Bridges attended a few practices and traveled with the team to play at Alabama.
He didn’t participate that day because he hadn’t been to enough workouts yet to be cleared, but was practicing his shot off to the side when Alabama head coach Ford Burttram noticed.
“He asked me if I wanted to play for the University of Alabama,” Bridges said. “The rest is history.”
Bridges would not let that opportunity slip.
“It definitely means a lot to me, I got a second opportunity at something I thought that I lost," he said. "I didn’t know that something like this was readily available and so when I found it, there was no turning back at that point.
"I had planned on playing college ball when I was standing, so getting this opportunity to come over here and play college ball again at the University of Alabama, it was like a redemption for me. I took it and ran with it.”
Humor and humility are the words used to describe the experienced duo charged with leading a youthful Crimson Tide men’s wheelchair basketball team back to a national championship. Bridges provides the laughter, Jensen the perspective.
“Lindy Bridges keeps the banter going,” senior Abraham Hausman-Weiss said. “He’s probably one of the more lighthearted players on the team. He’s really good at balancing that intensity. He’s intense when you need to be intense but he’s able to really lighten the mood when it needs to be lightened.”
“Janson brings the humility,” Hausman-Weiss said. “He always does the right thing. He always makes sure that if someone has a problem, he’ll listen to you, he’ll help you and keep it confidential. He’s that dude that’s always looking out for the little guy, looking out for someone who’s feeling not their best.”
Together, Bridges and Jansen complete a tight-knit group of veteran talent alongside Hausman-Weiss and Bennett. Both Jansen and Bridges bring a unique perspective to the challenges of beginning again after winning it all.
“We still need to earn the right to win,” Jansen said. “The older guys in the group, we know what it took for those teams to win. The big reason those other teams were so successful is that we worked together so well, any five that was on the court at all times. Always knew where we were supposed to be and they were really unselfish. We set up each other for success. It takes a little bit for that to click, no matter what team it is. Finding how to do that as quick as possible will make us a more successful team.”
While the performances on the court ultimately win championships, this team’s pursuit of excellence extends well beyond the lines.
“The best thing for me to do is keep my composure, especially with these younger guys,” Bridges said. “Showing them how to act on and off the court, how to handle their business and do it in a professional manner. I carry myself with humility and pride in what I do. I think that’s really important to instill in these younger guys, just show them the kind of hard work that it takes and how hard work pays off in the long run.”
The attitudes that Jansen and Bridges possess are paramount to the success of the Crimson Tide this season. Their performances are certainly game-changing between the lines, but their ability to motivate and fan the competitive flames of this Alabama team has the ability to go to the next level.
So far, so good.
The Crimson Tide is 5-0, 1-0 in conference play, and will next take the court on Friday, Nov. 22 at UW-Whitewater in Wisconsin.