The University of Illinois Fighting Illini have landed one of the top wheelchair basketball recruits in the country with the commitment of Durango, Colorado hooper and Southern Ute, Southern Cheyenne and Caddo, Noah Hotchkiss. The 18-year-old MVP of the national wheelchair basketball tournament in April of 2017 decided on the Champaign, Illinois school after being recruited by several other schools that offer the growing sport.
The Illini have a long history with wheelchair college basketball, with teams dating back to 1947, which attracted Hotchkiss. “They have wheelchair basketball really dialed down,” he told ICMN. “It was kind of hard to pass up considering some of the other colleges, but in terms of academics, it’s the best sports school to go to if you want that and wheelchair basketball.”
Hotchkiss averaged 23 points and 12 assists per game in leading his Denver Jr. Rolling Nuggets team to a national championship in April. A 2009 car accident paralyzed him from the waist down. “Before my accident I played soccer.”
After trying a handful of sports, he began playing wheelchair basketball in 2014, his father Jason says. “We focused more on the skiing, rafting, kayaking, stuff that we were kind of already involved in in the family. Getting exposed to the world of wheelchair basketball was huge. Meeting these college coaches was something we haven’t really envisioned at all.”
One of the challenges the family had in high school was geography. Three teams he played against were eight hours away. But the family found the lengthy drives worth it.[text_ad]“[Wheelchair basketball] becomes a great opportunity for a parent for their kids with disabilities to play an incredible team sport,” Jason says.
It also prompted Jason to hop in a chair and start playing, as the sport isn’t limited to paraplegics. “It’s incredible the amount of skill it takes to play,” he says. “You’d have to move the basketball hoop up four feet, the three-point line six feet. That’s the distance these guys are shooting from regularly; not to mention, they have to both control the chair with their hands and the ball. It’s amazingly hard to play at a high level.”
Noah dreams of playing in the wheelchair Olympics after earning his bachelor’s degree. He says the Illinois basketball program could get him there. “I’m hoping athletically it will take me to that next level so I can start competing against the older more veteran players that really know what they’re doing: communication’s up there, they shoot really well; they have a team dynamic.”
Noah has aspirations of using a computer science and engineering degree to acquire a job that allows him to play wheelchair basketball. He also hopes to take his game to the professional leagues, called D3 and D2. “D1 Championship League is the highest level of competition you can get.”
Noah’s family has spent hours of research to make sure he doesn’t miss an opportunity. He may even play overseas, as one German team has already expressed interest in him. “They have big professional leagues in Europe,” Jason says. “They passed a milestone this year in the German League. Their average attendance was 7,000 people per game.”
Someday, professional wheelchair basketball could even pay Noah’s bills. “The top American player earns $8,000 a week,” Jason says.
Two years ago, Noah applied for Billy Mills’ Dreamstarter grant in the amount of $10,000. The grant aims to jumpstart the dreams of American Indian youth. Noah’s dream was to create an organization that helped others like him — disabled and living in a rural setting — find opportunities to play wheelchair basketball. He received the award and founded Tribal Adaptive with his funding.
The experience transformed Noah, according to his father. “We saw a difference in how he was progressing in handling his accident.”
Through his organization, Noah was invited to speak at the White House for a Native American philanthropy conference. “They invited a whole bunch of Native youth-inspired projects and they were given a two-minute speed-round pitch. As their keynote speaker, I did kind of a 10-minute talk about what I did. It was a really awesome experience.”
He’s noticed how his success in the past four years has garnered him attention, and hopes to continue to build on it and be a role model for Native youth.
“Kind of having this platform has been really beneficial,” Noah says. “It has given me kind of the public stage to speak and inspire people.”
Cary Rosenbaum (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a correspondent for Indian Country Media Network. Follow him on Twitter: @caryrosenbaum