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He played wheelchair basketball in high school, and was good enough at it to earn a full scholarship to New Mexico State University. Then his girlfriend got pregnant, they had a son, and plans for college were dropped. "I got a job, I got an apartment; I tried to do the right thing."

Gilliland, who grew up in Phoenix, caught a rugby practice at ASU in 1995 and instantly took to it. "I never got to prove myself growing up, but with rugby, I knew how to move my chair," he says. "I found the thing -- the one thing -- I was really good at."

Part of Gilliland's success rests in the fact that he is what murderballers call a "disease." As someone who grew up disabled as the result of illness, Gilliland has spent more time in a chair than "injuries," his teammates point out, and he also has more motion in his trunk, which allows him to use his torso in addition to his arms to wriggle in and out of tight situations.

On the court, Gilliland is a being transformed, intense and immensely driven. His dexterity, as well as the power his pistonlike arms exude as he maneuvers his way through a defensive line, is daunting. Gilliland plays smart and plays hard, pushing up and down the court, head down, his tattooed shoulders tucked close to his body. He knows the sweet spot on an opponent's chair that, when struck with the right angle and intensity, will send him crashing to the ground. He's considered by both teammates and opponents as one of the best players in the world, and his speed, force and ball-handling skills can mean the difference between a win or a loss for the Phoenix Heat, a fact the other players know all too well, and won't let him forget.

Gilliland was considered a traitor by many on the team when he left Phoenix last year to play for the Heat's nemesis, the Texas Stampede. His departure was a blow to many of his teammates, who were also some of his closest friends. It's been a long road back, and his year away has changed things between Gilliland and the Heat.

"Andy and I had a really good relationship, before." Gilliland says. "When I left, Andy thought I was betraying our friendship. Scott thought I was betraying rugby."

Neither was the case, Gilliland explains with a sigh. "I've lived here all my life, and I've wanted to leave for a long time," he says. "Growing up, my parents did everything for me, and I wanted to see if I could survive without them. I went there and started a whole different life. That's an achievement."

At the end of his year in Texas, Gilliland was ready to come home and play for the Heat again. He's close to his family, which includes his 6-year-old son, and -- until this summer -- his younger brother, Matthew. Convincing the team he left behind to take him back wasn't easy. After all, Gilliland led Texas to a win over the Heat last year. The one-point loss was devastating for Phoenix, and it's still a sore subject, even after Gilliland's return to the fold.

"We hate Texas," says Hogsett. "I mean we really hate them. They're our archrivals. Mike could have gone anywhere, but the fact that he went to them, to Texas . . ." he shakes his head, ". . . that hurt."

Cohn, meanwhile, blames Gilliland's defection on ambition. "We were really close before, and I'm not going to hold a grudge, but something like this diminishes a friendship," he says. "He didn't think about the fact that he was leaving us all behind. He wanted to win."

In the end, it took a tragedy to transcend the politics. "They didn't want me back at first. They really didn't," Gilliland says, his eyes turning away. "We had one or two confrontations, and then I lost my younger brother in a car accident in August. Next to my son, I loved him more than anything." He pauses. "It's sad to say, but that helped things in a way."

"When his brother died, all the bad feelings ended," Cohn notes. "There was no question anymore."

After months of training -- and a tedious plane-and-bus trip from Phoenix to Birmingham -- the nine players of the Heat wheel onto the floor of the Alabama "Demolition Derby," the three-day international tournament where murderballers test themselves and scope out the competition that the postseason championships will bring their way.

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Susy Buchanan