Coaching the Juniors

Marine Corps veterans give back to the sport that helped them in their time of need

By John Groth

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Raymond Hennagir at the 2018 National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. (Photo Christopher Di Virgilio).


Now that the Miami Valley Junior Raptors have arrived and are playing at the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament (NWBT), two military veterans hopes they’re players see the bigger picture.

Assistant coaches and Marine Corps veterans Raymond Hennagir and Justin Knowles want their players to understand that there’s more people out there like them then they think. And just as importantly, they can make a difference in life, bond with other people and experience joy.

“For the kids, it’s a first-time experience for some of them. It’s just a great experience to get out here, to see all the other kids, to see the community I guess, basically see how big it is and how many people are actually out here doing this like them. They’re not alone,” Hennigar says.

The Junior Tournament began play during Friday’s second day of the NWBT at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky. Competing in the Junior NIT division, the No. 24 seed Junior Raptors out of Dayton, Ohio, lost their first-round game Friday, falling 55-16 to the No. 25 seed Cincinnati Dragons 55-16 before playing an evening game against the No. 32 seed Mississippi Wheelcats.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Justin Knowles (far left) gets his team ready for competition at the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio).

Still, even to be one of the 48 junior teams playing in this tournament is a major deal – and what Hennagir hopes could be a life-changing experience.

Wheelchair basketball was a major lifesaver for him.

A bi-lateral above-the-knee amputee, Hennigar was injured June 16, 2007 in Zaidon, Iraq, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). He also lost some fingers on his left hand when the injury occurred.

After rehabbing at what is now called Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Hennigar moved out to Dayton in 2007 and started playing for the Miami Valley Raptors wheelchair basketball team there.

Playing gave him a sense of purpose and helped him learn to never give up, almost anything is possible as long as you push your mind to it and that hard work pays off.  This year, the Junior team needed some new coaches, so he decided to help this year and join as an assistant. He just wanted to give back.

“It was nice to, you know, have people sit there and teach me something new and keep me and get me involved in something,” says Hennagir, who served from 2004-2010 as a combat engineer. “All the things that it did to me, it’s kind of nice to, you know, pass that along back to the younger generation and try to get them involved in something so that they can have something to help them stay motivated and keep pushing through life.”

But it was more than just him stepping up to join in.

Like Hennagir, fellow Marine Corps veteran and friend Justin Knowles volunteered to be an assistant coach this year. A left leg above-the-knee amputee, Knowles, 31, served in the military as a combat engineer from 2006-2012, He was injured in 2008 when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and retired from the Marine Corps in 2012.

Knowles acknowledged he’s seen the kids improve.

“For the kids, they’ve done a lot better. We’ve had kids on our team who couldn’t hit the net at all at the beginning of the season. Now they’re making baskets. So, it’s great. The kids are going great,” says Knowles, who started playing wheelchair basketball in 2009 on the Marine Corps team where rehabbed at Walter Reed. “We have not had as many wins as we would’ve liked, but we’ve played a lot of tough games, close games with player injuries and players missing, we’ve done pretty good I think.”

And that makes everything worth it.

“Even though I’m not the same as I was, the work I put into this it shows and it gives me something to look forward to, I guess,” Hennagir says.


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