Wheelchair basketball is one of my favorite spectator sports. No kidding, in the hands of skilled players those chairs turn into an exciting ballet of sorts. But how and why did it all get started?
That’s an easy one to answer. Just ask any wheelchair athlete and they’ll tell you- Grandpa did it! Grandpa was likely a young veteran returning from World War 2 by way of six or so months in a military hospital and a year or two in a VA Hospital. Why the circuitous route home? You see, grandpa was unlucky enough to have sustained a combat related spinal cord injury which rendered him a paraplegic and rehab was measured in months and years back then, not in weeks as now.
The image captures it all. Whoops, how do I know grandpa in the image is a veteran? Check out his colors that proudly display “PVA” on them. That’s right, Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Young grandpas returning home brought back with them the same competitive spirit that they left home with and then some. They wanted to be active, to win, to be part of a select group, and to be in the thick of the excitement and action. It made sports a natural for them and basketball was one of the easier sports to adapt. Like today’s street hoopers, all you need is a basket, a ball, and a small chunk of ground you can call a court.
So paralyzed vets began it all before they even hit the civilian streets. In the gyms and converted auditoriums, parking lots, and any available empty space at Veterans Administration Hospitals across the country, grandpa and his vet buddies pounded the courts and each other during their newly devised games of wheelchair basketball. Ultimately veteran and civilian teams were formed, leagues were organized, a national governing body was put in place and the sport has been spreading like wildfire ever since.
I just can’t end this without taking a look at the equipment young grandpa is packing. Take a close look at his knees (click image to enlarge). They are very squared off looking and peeking out from under his pants are stirrups and a black leather ankle strap. It appears that grandpa is wearing a pair of leg braces. How come? Hey, the world of 1948 was not in the least accessible. Young grandpa had to be able to stand and hump curbs, steps, and thresholds while dragging his 55 pound wheelchair behind him. Not to mention walking into bathrooms and bedrooms with doors 3″ narrower than his wheelchair and being able to stand to reach things. Sure thing, almost all paras back then were issued braces and sure as hell they were taught how to use them.
Now for the lovely wheels that our warrior athlete is sitting in. My guess is that it was a stripped down Everest & Jennings folding manual wheelchair. Of course grandpa also kick started the sports wheelchair industry by stripping down and modifying a stock folder chair. Years later many of these mods were commercialized and made available on early sports wheelchairs.
Check it out- arm pads are gone, armrest panels are gone, lever brakes are gone, and god only knows where he got the small front casters back in those days? It’s an amazing piece of rustic technology and Americana. It’s amazing that with heavy metal braces on, wheel axles and CG set way back, and solid tires onboard, grandpa could even push this thing. But he did and probably loved every minute of it.
Having worked with many many WW2 vets over the years, I have come to appreciate not only their valor but their fortitude and spirit. How I do miss them now. America’s greatest generation, indeed they were.
Director of Assistive Technology
United Spinal Association