Evjen takes unexpected journey to becoming EWU’s first sanctioned wheelchair basketball coach

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Courtesy of David Evjen

David Evjen (No. 5) competes for the Colombian National Team. Evjen played for the team for two years.

By Drew Lawson, Sports Editor

When David Evjen was playing high school basketball as an able-bodied person in Minnesota, he never thought that he’d one day make history as EWU’s first non-club wheelchair basketball coach.

In fact, he barely knew what wheelchair basketball was. 

“Honestly, I had no idea (what) it was,” Evjen said. “I had no idea how it worked, if the rules were any different or the same, no idea. My first knowledge of the game before I got into it was seeing a banner on (Southwest Minnesota State University’s) campus.”

Evjen’s world was rocked in May 2012, however, when he suffered a herniated lower back disc that caused nerve damage in his left leg. Unable to participate in “regular” basketball at his college, Southwest Minnesota State University, he was approached by a player on SMSU’s wheelchair basketball team who saw that he walked with a noticeable limp. 

“He approached me and said ‘hey, I noticed you have a unique walk,’” Evjen said. “‘I guess you could try and see if you could play wheelchair basketball.’”

Evjen joined SMSU’s team at a time when there were only eight teams in the country. It was an experience that took him places he never expected to go. 

“(Because) there’s only eight teams … everybody goes to nationals,” Evjen said. “I was pretty intrigued.”

After college, Evjen thought about trying out for the U.S. National Team. Unfortunately, a lack of funds got in the way.

“I got an invitation to try out for the U.S. National Team, but at the time I didn’t have any money to pay to go to the tryout,” Evjen said. 

Despite being unable to afford tryouts for the U.S. National Team, Evjen’s playing career wasn’t over yet. Evjen has dual citizenship between the U.S. and Colombia, and the Colombian National Team offered to fly him down to South America and try him out. Evjen made the squad.

“That experience opened up my eyes as far as the different levels that there are in any sport when you get to the international level,” Evjen said. “You’re playing against, number one, grown men, and number two, professional athletes … Most of the guys that are playing are (also) playing in Europe professionally all year around.” 

Evjen said the experience of playing on the Colombian National Team made him a better player and more well-rounded in his knowledge of the sport. 

After two years of playing on the Colombian National Team, Evjen moved to coaching. He realized he wanted to be a coach by observing other coaches and recognizing how they helped other players get better. That desire was heightened when he spent a year as a graduate assistant at SMSU.

“I (like) using my wisdom and my knowledge that I’ve gained,” Evjen said. “I also (like) working with people that are asking me to put them through drills and get them better to reach their goals.” 

Obtained from inside.ewu.edu
David Evjen was hired in Dec. 2019. He expects to field a team next season.

Evjen was working at Willmar High School in Minnesota as the Spanish Cultural Liason when a former opponent reached out and told him that EWU was looking to hire a head coach for a wheelchair basketball program that the university was launching. 

Evjen hadn’t been to the Inland Northwest before, so like many other aspects of his career, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Despite the unknown, he and his wife decided to accept the EWU head coaching job and help launch the program. According to a release from EWU, Evjen began his duties on Dec. 2, 2019. 

“(EWU) was very open in the job description about how early in the process they were, but it was clear that they were far enough into the process that they could hire a coach,” Evjen said. “Just like the Colombia (team), I didn’t know what I was getting into, but…I just signed up for it, and they trusted me.”

Dr. Donna Mann, associate dean of the College of Health Science and Public Health, commandeered the hiring process that led to Evjen. Mann said she’s been trying to get a sanctioned wheelchair basketball program, which will be known as a ParaSports program, since 2015.

Mann said Evjen was the right choice for the job because he has experience as a para athlete himself.

“He has a first-hand understanding,” Mann said. “He’s got a passion for the sport. He had a clear vision for what the program could be.”

Evjen’s goal is to get a team in place for the 2020-21 season. EWU will compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Intercollegiate Division. This team is not affiliated with EWU’s wheelchair basketball club team. 

Evjen has begun recruiting and is hoping to get athletes to commit to coming to EWU and joining the team. Most of the interest has been from Washington, but Evjen sees this as an advantage due to the scarcity of college wheelchair basketball programs in the state.

“There’s been a lot of interest from (those) players when they heard that this was going down,” Evjen said of EWU launching a team. “People wanted to know more, because they’re like, ‘I never thought of staying to play basketball. I always thought I’d have to go to Illinois, Alabama or Texas.’” 

Outside of putting a team together, Evjen’s biggest goal is raising local support for the team. 

“I think the biggest thing (left) is (generating) support,” Evjen said. “(We need) support from the community, from the university (and )from the athletic department.”

Evjen is confident that the wheelchair basketball program will interest viewers.

“If anybody sees one game of wheelchair basketball, they will be hooked into watching the game,” Evjen said. “They’ll get confused at first. They’ll get kind of nervous at first, because it’s a very physical game (with) a lot of collisions, but at the end of the game they’ll see the sport for what it is, not for the equipment being used.”

Evjen’s vision is to create a sustainable program that will be around for a while, not “fold after two years.”

“I want to make sure we’re providing the program with a culture that will be around for a long time,” Evjen said. “(I’m) not necessarily worried about winning the championship in the next two years … I want it to continually grow, step by step, and allow for more athletes to come to EWU.”

Evjen said he hopes that anyone who commits to EWU realizes the gravity of that decision.

“Whoever decides to play on the team that we’re going to get going in the fall of 2020 will be a part of history,” Evjen said. “That is something that will never get taken away.”