In 1957, the need for adaptive competition in something other than wheelchair basketball had become a stark reality. So, the Bulova School of Watchmaking and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) sponsored the first National Wheelchair Games that year at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. The Games basically ran from 1957 to 1995.
Now, they’re returning next year thanks to Move United, which was first known as the National Wheelchair Athletic Association, and have been renamed the Move United Nationals. I’m truly excited to see the event’s return, and I know late SPORTS ’N SPOKES (S’NS) founding editor Cliff Crase would be ecstatic if he were with us to witness this rebirth of a historic athletic event.
In 1966, something truly special became part of the Games, and it’s something I hope will become a part of the new event as it moves forward. Rather than trying to articulate the significance of what I’m referring to, I’ll let Cliff, with a little help from Newsweek magazine, tell you in the following excerpt from an article he wrote in the 1995 May/June issue of S’NS simply called, Athlete Of The Year Award.
“The Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) Jack Gerhardt Athlete of the Year Award was created in 1966 for the National Wheelchair Athletic Association (now Wheelchair Sports, U.S.A.). The award is named in honor of Gerhardt, a native New Jersey and World War II paraplegic who played on one of the first wheelchair basketball teams from Halloran VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] Hospital in Staten Island, N.Y.
“Jack was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine on March 22, 1948, attired in a PVA uniform and sitting in a basketball wheelchair. The title on the cover read, Paraplegics: The Conquest of Unconquerable Odds. The following is a quote from the Newsweek feature article:
‘Through the smoke and glare of Madison Square Garden, the basketball court had the stark quality of a George Bellows lithograph. ‘Ten husky young men in slender metal wheelchairs were lined up for the referee’s whistle. As the two centers pushed themselves forward, the battle began. Chairs whirled the length of the court. The ball was passed, dropped, and clutched again.
‘A wiry, dark-haired boy with a broad grin lifted his powerful arms for a neat shot into the basket. The audience of 15,561 sports fans roared. ‘This Garden game on the night of March 10  was speedy, big-league basketball, with no quarter asked and none given. The one difference lay in the substitution of free wheeling for fast footwork.
The contestants were veterans of the Second World War whose battle wounds had left them paralyzed from the waist down.
‘One team wore the navy and white uniforms of Halloran Veterans Hospital, Staten Island, New York; the other, the royal blue and orange of Cushing Veterans Hospital at Framingham, Massachusetts. In the Madison Square Garden game, Halloran, which has won 26 out of 27 games, defeated Cushing, 20-11.’ ”
Cliff’s article then continued, “PVA named this award in the memory of Jack because he was a premier athlete who was instrumental in the founding of wheelchair sports.”
This award was presented annually at the Games from 1966 to 1994. A list of the recipients is included in this column. How many of them did you know or at least knew of their accomplishments?
I’m hopeful the award will once again be part of the newly renamed event when it begins next year. I’ve heard that the award presentation was a highlight each year, much like the way the Spirit of the Games Award is a National Veterans Wheelchair Games highlight.
The Move United Nationals are set to run July 8–15, 2023, in Alabama. I can tell you for certain that both PN and S’NS will be providing annual coverage of the event, and we wish this endeavor well as it moves forward.