Chandler coach’s wheelchair theft touches community The Chandler Arizonan

Chandler coach’s wheelchair theft touches community

Chandler coach’s wheelchair theft touches community

By Kevin Reagan

Arizonan Staff Writer


Tommy Hambicki’s wheelchair went on a turbulent journey these last few weeks. 

It went missing on Jan. 14 – presumably stolen by a thief – and left the 35-year-old coach scrambling to find it. 

“I had no idea what to do,” recalled Hambicki, who was paralyzed below the waist in a car accident in 2003.  

A one-time basketball star at Gilbert High School, Hambicki’s life has certainly been filled with highs and lows – but losing his wheelchair felt like a new low. 

He filed police reports, called pawn shops and surveyed his neighbors – hoping something might lead to him finding his wheelchair. 

A neighbor’s security camera captured a man taking Hambicki’s wheelchair off his front porch in broad daylight. After watching this footage, Hambicki knew then he probably wasn’t getting his chair back and set out to get a replacement. 

His chair had been custom-made just for him and buying a new one would cost at least $6,000. 

Hambicki found out his insurance policy doesn’t cover thefts, requiring him to pay entirely out-of-pocket for a new chair. The news didn’t really surprise Hambicki since his insurance often won’t pay for necessary medical supplies. 

“I don’t even get coverage for my catheters,” he said. “I have to pay to pee.”

The new chair’s big price tag worried Hambicki’s family, so they turned to the community for help. 

Hambicki coaches youth basketball for Arizona Kings in Chandler and the families of his players started circulating his story. Within 48 hours, the family had accumulated enough donations to pay for the new chair. 

Robin Lee, owner of Arizona Kings, said her players and their families adore Hambicki and instantly wanted to rally around his cause.  

“We’re really fortunate to have him part of our program,” Lee said, “He’s such an inspiration.” 

The story quickly grew beyond Chandler’s basketball community, Lee added, and people who didn’t even know Hambicki were sending in donations.

It warmed Hambicki’s heart to see how fast the public helped out in his time of need.

“It shows how much people care genuinely about you and your well-being,” he said. 

He was in the midst of ordering the new chair on Jan. 19, when a stranger came knocking on his door.

Hambicki’s mother opened the door to the family’s Glendale home and he heard her gasp. 

A man had brought back Hambicki’s missing wheelchair. He confessed to taking it, explaining he thought Hambicki had left the chair outside to be picked up by garbage trucks.

Hambicki said the man seemed genuine and it doesn’t matter to him whether the man stole the chair with malicious intent. 

“I don’t even care, I’m just grateful he returned it,” he said. 

It seemed like a miracle had taken place, but Hambicki noticed his wheelchair was not in the same condition as before. 

It looked banged up, the wheels were off balance and its seat cushion was missing. 

The multiple surgeries Hambicki’s had over the years have made his skin incredibly sensitive and prone to sores. His seat cushion is critically needed to distribute Hambicki’s weight evenly on the chair, he explained. 

All the chair’s new flaws made it unusable, he said, putting Hambicki back in the same position he was in before. 

He still plans to order a new chair and isn’t quite sure how long it might take to get it. One chair he ordered several years ago took nine months to deliver. 

Hambicki said he would allow anyone who sent donations to his family the opportunity to ask for a refund. It didn’t really seem right, he said, considering the stolen chair was returned. 

But donors kept contributing to the family’s Hambicki’s page. Even after updating their page with news of the wheelchair’s return, people continued sending in donations. 

It’s quite humbling and surprising for Hambicki to see so much support for his cause, since he feels like he’s withdrawn a bit from the community in recent years. 

Hambicki achieved much notoriety in 2003 after he helped his high school basketball team win the state championship. But the victory was tainted 16 days later after an ugly car accident stripped Hambicki of his mobility.  

He tried not to allow his disability to interfere with his passion for sports. In the following years, Hambicki coached Basha High School’s basketball team and started playing wheelchair basketball. 

Doctors warned him to quit playing after an infection left Hambicki bed-ridden for several months. He heeded their advice and started to pull away from the sport.  

“I didn’t really know what to do for the next couple years,” he said. 

Hambicki started making art, did some traveling, and eventually moved out of Chandler. He’s recently enrolled in acting classes and hopes to audition soon for some agents. 

But the recent wheelchair fiasco has motivated Hambicki to get reconnected with the community he grew up around.

He’s not sure yet whether it means spending more time on the basketball court, since he’s focusing his energy on acting. 

“Life’s too short to not do what you want,” Hambicki said, “I’ve learned that in a lot of different ways.”

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