BY WIL CREWS
The Auburn wheelchair basketball team is venturing into foreign territory.
With head coach Robb Taylor also serving as Team USA’s mens’ wheelchair basketball team head coach, the Auburn program — which is run through a partnership with the university’s Office of Accessibility and the School of Kinesiology — has been making “waves” in the international game.
“It’s important to me as the coach here at Auburn — all the guys on the squad, I’m teaching them what it takes to play international basketball,” Taylor said. “So that way, if they do have an opportunity, they are putting their best foot forward and are prepared.”
Three Auburn wheelchair basketball team members were recently selected to travel to Thailand this month to compete with Team USA in the U23 World Championships. The three players traveling are Sam Armas, Jake Eastwood and Luke Robinson.
“[I am] really excited about what we have got going on with the Auburn program here, and the student-athletes who are representing the U.S. from an under-23 standpoint,” Taylor said. “They are playing really well, and they all kind of have a different style to their play, which will work well on the international stage. It’s almost like a proud papa moment for me. It’s nice to finally see some of our Auburn guys make it to that stage.”
Additionally, Taylor and Auburn wheelchair basketball team member Joe Rafter competed — and won gold — in July at the 2022 Americas Cup, a qualifying competition for the World Championships in Dubai this November.
“The top three teams from the Americas qualified,” Taylor said. “We went down with a really young and new team, and it went a whole lot better than what I expected, not really knowing what we had going down there. Our goal was to qualify for world championships, win a medal and then — if everything worked out — to win a gold medal. And we were able to hit all three of those.”
Another team member, Robinson, added to Auburn’s international pedigree when he was recently selected as an alternate for Team USA’s trip the World Championships.
“We have another training camp coming up in October, and we will try to piece things together and tighten things up before we head to Dubai,” Taylor said.
Auburn’s wheelchair basketball schedule aligns with the university’s men’s and women’s basketball schedules — running from fall through the spring. Taylor said it has been a fun challenge balancing his role as Auburn’s and Team USA’s head coach (Taylor took over the job in January.).
“From a recruiting standpoint it helps … Auburn is near the top of their list because of the success our guys have had in the short amount of time we have had a team,” Taylor said. “It also helps I’m the coach of the U.S. team. If they come here, they are going to be able to learn the U.S. system, because that is what we play here at Auburn. It definitely does help, but I tell every recruit it doesn’t mean just because you come to Auburn, it doesn’t mean you are going to get an automatic tryout or free pass to make the U.S. team. The great part is I have great relationships with my guys and they understand that when it comes to U.S. ball, it’s not personal, it’s all business.”
The exposure and opportunity that Taylor’s status as Team USA coach — and these international trips — are generating, is increasing excitement within the Auburn program and on campus.
“From an Auburn standpoint, [the national presence] helps us out,” Taylor said. “We are kind of seen in a different light across the university. But our student athletes are getting recognition by different folks from the athletic department that understand the hard work they are putting in. For us, it’s kind of helping with our imprint on campus.”
Taylor and his players will have to navigate a busy fall schedule to accomplish all their goals for the season. Regardless, Taylor believes the program’s future is heading in the right direction.
“I’ve got a great staff here; we are putting in the work,” Taylor said. “Anything that I can do or we can do to help push the narrative of the [players] being student-athletes, and being viewed in the same light as student-athletes, is something we have been about since I’ve first been at Auburn. One day we will get there.”