A group of mainly military veterans answered a different call to serve in April by helping form a last-minute team at the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament
By John Groth
Usually, Jacques Theus doesn’t go outside his comfort zone. He’s just comfortable staying on the West Coast, coaching wheelchair basketball and living his life. But when the 39-year-old Marine Corps veteran received a call from someone wanting to know if he’d join a military team for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s (NWBA) 70th National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament (NWBT) in April, he couldn’t refuse to help his uniformed brothers. So what if it kicked off in just two days and was miles away from San Diego at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky.? His two teams — the Adult Division II San Diego Silverbacks and Junior Prep Division San Diego Hammer — didn’t qualify for the 96-team tournament, and he was told the Wounded Warriors organization would take care of his flight and hotel accommodations.
Win-Win For Everyone
Theus, who has a T4 spinal-cord injury (SCI), went for it — and it changed him, invigorating him for the future.
“And I have to come again. It’s so exciting, you know? It’s like you hear about this stuff so many times everywhere, but you never get a picture of it until you’re actually here and get the feel of it, so it’s a big difference. It’s a big step, you know?” says Theus, who was injured in an on-base car accident in 1999 in San Diego. “… So when I get back to my guys, that’s one thing I’m going to be drilling in their heads: ‘Hey, we’ve got to make it here. We’ve got to make it here.’ So there’s a motivation, so that’s why I like it. For me, as a coach, as a new coach, I’ve never been outside of my area. Get to come here and speak with different coaches, different players, you get to see now. I can go back and relay that information to my guys. So it’s a win for me.”
It was also a win for the NWBT, which found itself short a team when the Delaware Destroyers couldn’t make it at the last minute. The last-minute team meant a full 16-team Division II bracket could remain intact. NWBA Director Anthony Bartkowski says tournament officials had multiple individuals identify and reach out to players to join an exhibition team filled with mainly veterans. The only catch was that if the team won, their opponent would still advance because they were just an exhibition squad. The exhibition team ended up splitting its four games, but the military veterans also found other ways to help out at the tournament. They assisted with the NWBA’s Operation Rebound and helped find other active duty and injured military veterans who were interested in playing wheelchair basketball but who didn’t have a team or played for squad not attending the NWBT. Operation Rebound is a one-day clinic during the tournament that provides chair fitting, coaching and the opportunity to compete in games during a summer camp led by University of Texas-Arlington men’s wheelchair basketball coach Doug Garner.
“I think it went over well,” Bartkowski says. “I haven’t heard anything negative toward it, and it provided us an opportunity to ensure a team wasn’t just going to be missing out on one or two games just because of a bye, and we got full competition to happen.”
Making A Switch
Unlike Theus, whose team didn’t make the tournament, other members of the exhibition squad already at the tournament switched from another team. That was the case for Air Force veteran Sean Johnson. After playing with the Magee Spokesmen for four games, Johnson joined the exhibition team for their final game. He admitted it wasn’t a tough choice.
“I start for my team and I’m on the court all the time, so I figure you don’t get a chance to play with other veterans that often, and it gives some more people on my team more chance to play,” says Johnson, a below-the-knee amputee on his right leg. “Some of those guys don’t get a lot of time. So I said, ‘Well, it’s our last game. We haven’t been doing well. We lost all our games this weekend.’ So I said, ‘You know, let some of the bench guys get their run in.’”
So Johnson joined the exhibition team in its game against the No. 16 seed Sportable Rim Riders on April 14, as they won 42-36. A Philadelphia resident, Johnson served as a mental health specialist in Desert Shield/Desert Storm from 1990 to 1996, but when he returned home he was shot in his neighborhood. Initially, he was paralyzed, but he developed some movement in his left leg later. However, in 2013, that same leg got infected, then he contracted MRSA during a routine surgery and in 2015, he had to have the leg amputated. Johnson has played wheelchair basketball for the past five years. Oddly enough, before this year with Magee, he spent a year playing for Delaware. He’s also played the sport at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) and is used to playing with other veterans on the fly. In the NVWG wheelchair basketball tournament, athletes are randomly grouped and only have a few hours of practice time together before they compete as a team. Johnson loves the brotherhood and the camaraderie, although it’s a little more challenging not knowing other players’ capabilities and tendencies. Playing with veterans gave him an uplifting boost before he headed back to Philadelphia.
“I look forward to this every year. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. I’ve never came here and lost all of our games. We take it back home, learning experience, you know,” Johnson says. “I try to have fun no matter what. Some of the guys really take it to heart, and I understand that. You’re passionate about the game, but I’m here to really have fun and hopefully even win at the same time.”
Labor Of Love
Then, there’s Will Speed, who can’t get enough of wheelchair basketball. The 32-year-old Edinboro University junior drove six-and-a-half hours to Louisville from Edinboro, Pa., just to attend the tournament for the third straight year. He came to help recruit for his college team, to do field work to help him complete his bachelor of science degree in sport and recreation management. He also couldn’t say no to helping out his old friend, Garner. Speed participated in an Operation Rebound clinic April 14 and then linked up to play with the exhibition team for its final game that afternoon, too. Twelve years ago, Speed sustained a T4 complete SCI when he was involved in a motorcycle accident in Charlotte, N.C. Adaptive sports helped him develop confidence, find passion and pursue dreams. First, he started adaptive wakeboarding and eventually won a national championship in it in 2011. Then, he began teaching adaptive water skiing and in 2013-14, he began playing wheelchair basketball with the then-Charlotte Rollin’ Bobcats, now called the Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets.
“You know, so I’d gained some weight, so I wanted something to do during the winter. And so I found a local team, the Charlotte [Rollin’ Bobcats], and so I came out to one of their practices and they were like, ‘Oh, you’re pretty good. You’ve got a natural ability,’” Speed says. “So I started coming more often and really fell in love with the sport.”
By 2015, wheelchair basketball had become a major part of his life. Speed sold everything he had in June that year and moved to Edinboro to pursue a dream of playing wheelchair basketball collegiately. He hopes to eventually play for the U.S. men’s Paralympic team. He still coaches and teaches wakeboarding in North Carolina, but it’s wheelchair basketball that’s his new passion.
“I really fell in love with the camaraderie that you get being with a team as opposed to wakeboarding that’s not a team sport,” Speed says.
Theus loves that camaraderie, too. Wheelchair basketball gives him connection and helps him improve his physical and mental strength. But the most important lesson he learned was just to listen.
“’Cause a lot of us, sometimes we’ve been playing for a lot of years, and we tell you we know it all and want to kind of, like, tell people what to do, try to be the coach. Today, I was a student, for once,” Theus says. “One of my teammates said, ‘All I’ve done is just coaching and coaching and coaching.’ I haven’t played for the last three years. I’ve been coaching. But today, I got to work. I got a feeling I could take something. I learned some new tricks, some new stuff that I kind of forgot about that I can bring back to my team. So either way, it was a learning process for me.”