The U.S. men's wheelchair basketball team celebrates at the medal ceremony after the gold-medal match between USA and Spain at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on Sept. 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
They didn’t talk about London and they didn’t speak about the drought. The U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team talked about unity, moving forward and getting back to the pinnacle at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
And that’s what happened as the squad dominated its way to a gold medal last weekend — defeating Spain 68-52 in the championship — to end a 28-year drought since the Americans last stood atop the Paralympic Games medal podium.
“We’ve been building toward this moment the last four years,” said Steve Serio, one of the leaders who played on the team that finished fourth at the 2008 Beijing Games and won the bronze medal at the 2012 London Games.
Building this team began when Ron Lykins took the reins as the men’s coach in 2013. Lykins, who coached the women’s wheelchair team to a silver medal at Barcelona in 1992 and gold medals at Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008), brought a new philosophy and mindset to the men’s team.
Lykins didn’t completely tear down the team and rebuild it, but he got the ship steered in a more perfect direction.
“We were honest with the guys in the beginning on what we demanded,” Lykins said. “My staff and I talked about what kind of team we wanted, and we shared the vision with our players.”
The coach harped on winning one possession at a time. Make the basket on offense and get a stop on defense.
“If we win enough possessions then everything will add up in our favor,” Lykins said.
The effort went deeper than sharpshooting and stingy defense. It took an ultimate team commitment to fitness, nutrition, bonding, sports psychology and dedication.
“It took everyone being selfless and everyone for the team,” said first-time Paralympian Brian Bell. “Everyone kept each other accountable.”
When things got a little too physical in practice, leaders like Serio and Mike Paye stepped in to calm things down.
The players worked together for three years, as Lykins wanted continuity and cohesiveness on a team looking to win gold for the first time in nearly three decades.
“We never talked about being on a 28-year drought or getting bronze in London,” Lykins said. “We just played one game at a time and one tournament at a time. And this year the whole focus was going to Rio. If we played like we knew we could, then we had a shot at winning gold.”
The biggest stage didn’t faze the Americans, as their preparation began in 2013 when they won gold at the Americas Cup in Bogota, Colombia. They finished second at the 2014 world championships in Incheon, South Korea, after falling to Australia 63-57 in the gold-medal match. Then they defended their gold medal at the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto, setting up their drive to gold in Rio.
“When we got to Rio we just kept playing our game, trying to win one possession at a time,” Lykins said. “Our team had been together for three years, and we were used to playing through preliminary rounds and we had experience playing in gold-medal games. So we knew our guys were ready.”
Serio said the team focused on applying a “gold-medal effort” whether they were in a pool round or in the knockout stage.
The team gelled in the beginning and fed off of each other to get better and better.
“This is by far the best team I’ve been on athletically, and we all knew each other’s roles,” Bell said. “We were a family on and off the court. We ate together and hung out together when we weren’t on the court. But when we were on the court, we were all able to push each other to do better without any confrontation.”
Serio echoed the sentiment that the guys became more like brothers than merely teammates.
“We had our ups and downs together, but in the end we had each other,” Serio said.
The mission of defending that gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games is on hold — for now. Lykins told his guys to not look too far into the future just yet.
“I know there are 11 teams who are disappointed and putting this behind them and already thinking about Tokyo,” Lykins said. “But for us, all we talked about was Rio. We demanded so much of their time and physical attention.
“It’s a huge accomplishment what they’ve done, and they need to be proud of their accomplishments and we’re giving them some time to enjoy it. We want them to relax and enjoy the moment. Get back with their families and recharge themselves.”
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.