Canadian connection

Photo courtesy of Jim Tate: SMSU wheelchair basketball coach Derek Klinkner, center, is shown with his “Canada Connection” of Josh Brown, left, and Alex Wells.

MARSHALL — It was a bit of a journey to arrive on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University for wheelchair basketball player Alex Wells.

Exactly 2,957 miles.

The Torbay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, native is a freshman on the Mustangs’ wheelchair team, which is off to an impressive 7-1 start this season.

And to think, Wells hadn’t even heard of SMSU until this past summer.

How he got from Point A — Newfoundland and Labrador — to Point B — Marshall and SMSU — is a combination of coincidence and serendipity.

Wheelchair basketball coach Derek Klinkner was filling in for the Manitoba province head coach during this past summer’s Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League (CWBL) tournament. Each province fields a team during the CWBL event, said Klinkner. Coincidentally, SMSU wheelchair student-athlete Josh Brown was on the Manitoba team.

Wells ended up on the team because the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the eastern-most province in Canada, did not field a squad. He was a player without a team. He was placed on the Manitoba roster, and that’s where he met Klinkner and future teammate Brown.

He never imagined he’d continue his playing days at the collegiate level, and is thankful to have met Klinkner and Brown and had a taste of SMSU and the program .

“I wanted to continue my basketball career and feel fortunate that I’ve ended up at SMSU,” he said. “This is my best opportunity to play and the education is great. If I hadn’t come here, I’d be at home, probably have a job, and not pursuing my dream.”

Brown is a sophomore exercise science major from East St. Paul, Manitoba, Canada, a seven-hour drive from Marshall. In comparison, that’s a short jaunt to Ivanhoe compared to Wells’ journey to Newfoundland and Labrador.

And while Wells is a raw talent, Brown is a polished wheelchair player, having spent a lot of time training and competing with Canadian national team members in recently years. A year ago at SMSU, he averaged 16.4 points, 7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. This year, he’s scoring at a 16.7 clip, and collecting 7 rebounds. But he’s also played less games early in the season. “Early in the year, he was gone. He was trying out for the Canadian national team,” explained Klinkner.

“I’ve had more opportunities” when it comes to improvement, he admits, and he’s trying to be a positive example for Wells. Brown loves the competitive nature of wheelchair basketball, and the fact that he’s playing on one of just 11 college teams in the country. “Everyone at the college level is out to prove a point, they want to make it to the (national team) level,” he said.

Wells has looked up to Brown for quite some time. “I wanted to be more like him,” he said. When the two competed together at the

CWBL event, “I noticed he kept betting better and better. I reached out to him, we talked.”

Wells is majoring in physical education but will switch to broadcasting and multi-media at the semester break. He helped with televising/streaming the Mustang football games this past fall, which piqued his interest in broadcasting.

Wells has a condition called Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), a stiffening of the legs. He was born with the condition and says “it runs in the family.” He has a cousin on his mother’s side with HSP, he said.

Wells has been playing wheelchair basketball for 13 years, since he was 8. There’s not many players in Newfoundland and Labrador, he said. The few that live in his region got together once a week to practice. “It was a small group,” he said. He had talent, but little training regarding the wheelchair game.

At six-feet, Wells is the tallest player on the team, said Klinkner, and he’s shown steady improvement since practice began earlier in the year. “With proper coaching, and playing five times per week, he’s improved a lot,” said Klinkner. “He’s a post player, sits high in his chair, and he works hard each day. There’s been a night-and-day difference in his game. His confidence is growing, and he’s a good role player for us right now.”

Wells averages 15 minutes per game and has been a solid contributor, said Klinkner. He’s averaging 4 rebounds per game, and just under 4 points. “When l first saw him (at the CWBL tournament) it was clear he had raw ability,” said Klinkner.

“We’ve been a big part of the wheelchair basketball scene at the college level since the beginning of the university and it’s players like Alex and Josh that help us continue that tradition.”

His ultimate goal is to represent Canada on the 2028 Canada Paralympics team. He feels the experience he’ll be getting the next few years at SMSU will go a long ways to accomplishing that goal.

“I’m happy to be here,” he said. “I’m grateful for this opportunity.”

The Canada Connection has proven to be a productive duo for the Mustangs and the wheelchair family is enjoying the positive impact the two bring to the team.


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