My Opinion – Wheelchair Basketball’s Growth Is Amazing

A deep appreciation for wheelchair basketball and the men who helped form the first teams

The 2020 National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Toyota National Championship Series tips off in Wichita, Kansas, this month with more than 1,100 athletes representing 96 teams.

By Tom Fjerstad

I have to be honest and admit I was never a basketball fan and never played the sport. Within weeks of becoming a member of the wheelchair club, I remember all too well a recreational therapist appearing at my bedside and telling me that a group of guys were getting together in the gym that evening to play some basketball, and she wanted to know if I’d like to join them.

I distinctly recall telling her, “I didn’t play basketball before I got hurt; why on earth would I want to start now?” That was 30 years ago, and I still haven’t touched a basketball.

Wheelchair basketball has, however, impacted my life. During my time as editor of this magazine and its sister publication, PN, I’ve developed an incredible admiration for the men who started wheelchair basketball in the United States.

This is a sport started by the same men who created Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) in the mid-1940s. They formed the California Flying Wheels, one of the sport’s original teams.

Much of the attention on the needs of those paralyzed veterans was garnered through the awareness raised by this sport.

About two weeks ago, I found myself in Long Beach, Calif., at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Long Beach Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders Center. To be specific, I was in the parking lot digging through a storage container.

The container belonged to the PVA California Chapter and hadn’t been opened in nearly 20 years. I’ve yet to scratch the surface of its contents, but I can tell you that boxes upon boxes of wheelchair basketball history are part of the find. This includes hundreds of newspaper clippings, photos and official tournament programs.

I’m currently looking at the program from the eighth National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament that took place April 6–7, 1956, at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Glenview, Ill. There were only eight teams at this tournament — a far cry from the 96 squads gathering in Wichita this month.

However, I believe the remarks made by then-NWBA President Donald Kennedy in his greeting to the public still ring true at this year’s tournament: “We are certain you will enjoy our favorite sport and, with us, experience the keen competitive spirit that not only typifies wheelchair basketball but which we all, as individuals in our home communities, exhibit in the daily demonstration of our creed that ‘ability, not disability, counts.’ ”

In hindsight, I should have lost the attitude and given basketball a try when given the opportunity all those years ago. I wish the best of luck to the 96 teams gathering in Kansas, and yes, SPORTS ‘N SPOKES will be there!

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