When you think of some of the most successful coaching trees, it’s hard not to think of Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs of Nick Saban of the University of Alabama. Successful head coaches and organizations often produce quality staff members that go on to different organizations to spread their winning mentalities. This happens in all sports, wheelchair basketball included.
In the 21st century, it is hard to find a wheelchair basketball organization that has had more success as the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks, who have won 15 Adult Division National Championships in the last 21 years. It was from his experience with the Mavericks that Francis Key was able to bring a winning mentality to a new team, the Tyler Thorns of Tyler, Texas.
Key is a 40-year-old lawyer from Tyler, Texas who acts as both a player and head coach of the Tyler Thorns. He was injured in a car wreck in 1994, which resulted in paralysis from the chest down. “I did nothing,” he explained as he spoke about his life immediately after the crash. “I had absolutely no direction in life at that time.”
In the late 90’s, Tyler did not have a very large disabled community, so it wasn’t until Key moved to Austin, Texas in 2000 that he was introduced to wheelchair basketball. “Once I got into basketball, I started working out and lost almost 70 pounds,” Key proudly explained. “My health and my self-image got so much better.”
Key played for a team in Austin for a few years and he claimed that although they had passion, they were not a very great team. They did receive a National Tournament invite while he was on the team, but he said they did not expect to win any games. Once it was time to begin his college education, Key continued to play wheelchair basketball, but in more of a recreational league capacity. When it came time for him to pick his law school, one of the biggest factors was where he could play in a more competitive league. For that reason, among others, he chose to attend Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
During his time in Dallas, Key earned the chance to play more competitively with the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks’ Division II team. In that same year, 2007, he won a National Championship with the team. To find that level of success after such a short time with the team is phenomenal, but his time as a full-fledged player on the team was short-lived. “Once we won the National Championship that year, I thought I could put the sport on the backburner and focus more on school,” Key admitted. “So it was really just one or two years that I was a committed part of the team.”
Finishing law school and passing the bar became the top priority for Key, so his time with the Mavericks dwindled down to mainly being a practice player that did not travel with the team. In 2014, Key decided to return to his hometown of Tyler, Texas. “Wheelchair basketball provided a profound change in my life and I wanted to bring that to Tyler since we’ve never had it in our community,” Key explained.
In 2015, Key and his friend/assistant coach Jon Duncan decided to start their own team in Tyler. After reaching out to members of the community to recruit a team and hustling to collect proper wheelchair basketball chairs, they were able to assemble a team of 11 players. Although Jon Duncan passed away last May, the team carries on his legacy as they prepare to go to their first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament presented by ABC Medical ever as a team.
To find the success that leads to a team earning an invite to the National Tournament after a little over three years since its creation is quite the accomplishment. When presented with the idea that the success stems from being a part of the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks coaching tree, Key laughed and answered, “in some ways, that’s exactly right and in others, it’s the complete opposite.”
One surprising fact about Key’s time with the Mavericks is that there was no head coach for the team, so the structure was pretty loose. Practices with the Mavericks involved scrimmages with zero drills. As a player with little experience at the time, Key shares that, “they threw me into the deep end and I just had to learn.”
Non-structured practices work when you have a team of experience players, but Key did not have that luxury when he started the Tyler Thorns. The first couple of months he ran drills to improve the fundamentals of his team. But once the basics were out of the way, Key decided to follow the Mavericks strategy that he learned from his time with the team. Now, he mainly runs scrimmages, but the one tweak is that he will stop games when he sees something done incorrectly. He has molded his coaching style to his team, but the strategies he learned from the Mavericks are what he hopes will lead his team to success.
We will all be watching the Tyler Thorns at this year’s national tournament to see just how large the seeds of a coaching tree can grow.