“Come here,” he said to my 10-year-old son. His tone was calm but firm. “If I ever see behavior like that again, you’ve ended your wheelchair basketball career, and this will have been your last tournament.”
My son Amit looked at his coach, Trooper Johnson. My gaze was fixed on Amit, who I feared was on the verge of a major blow-up. However, to my surprise, Amit looked Trooper straight in the eye, nodded his head, and whispered, “Yes, I understand.”
It was October 2012, and this was Amit’s first wheelchair basketball tournament as a member of the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP) Junior Road Warriors team. Trooper is not only the head coach of the team, but the assistant coach for the United States Women’s Paralympic team. Amit played hard and was tired and frustrated by his team’s repetitive losses. After the final game of the day, when the time came to shake hands, Amit refused. He huffed and puffed, angrily rolling off in his sports’ wheelchair.
Amit’s comprehension and acceptance of Trooper’s message was a make or break moment, and Amit decided to make it, plunging into a world that would change his life trajectory.
There was no turning back. Born with a rare orthopedic condition, my little boy spent his first 10 years of life in pain, limping after his peers while trying to catch up as they ran faster and faster—in marathons, with soccer balls, and with basketballs. He watched his friends race bikes and compete in Judo competitions, but it wasn’t until the day of the tournament he experienced, first-hand, the magic of a competitive team sport. He was hooked.
For the first time ever, for Amit and his new friends living with diverse disabilities including amputations, cerebral palsy, various genetic conditions, and spinal cord injury, the playing field was level. He thrived. Within a year, he was traveling with his beloved team throughout the western United States and went to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s nationals in Louisville.
At 11 years old, he was the youngest member of the travel team. This kid, who until fourth grade had a one-on-one aide, was traveling independently in sixth grade. After an exhausting weekend at an out of state tournament, he would drag himself from bed and to school on Monday morning. Why? Because at BORP, kids who had attendance problems (kids with disabilities tend to have significantly more unexcused absences) were disqualified from travel, just like their able-bodied peers who played high school sports.
The Junior Road Warriors became our second family—the kids, the coaches, and the parents. Each family and each young person had a different story and at BORP, Amit felt the most “normal” he had ever felt. The gym in Berkeley was his “safe” space. He was able to let his guard down and the kids, along with the coaches and parents, joked about life and their disabilities. Practice was for six hours, once a week, and Amit literally lived from Saturday to Saturday.
In a very short time, Amit was empowered. As his frustrations due to his own differences decreased and his awareness of the challenges that other kids with disabilities face grew, his behavior both at home and in school improved. Simply put, Amit had found his place.
When we moved to Israel in June of last year, Amit had to part with his team in Berkeley, but wheelchair basketball is still the driving force in his life. Amit plays at the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled on two leagues, as well as on the Junior National Team. His coach in Israel, Lior Dror, represented Israel in two Paralympic games and played professionally in Europe.
Amit’s Israeli teammates derive from all walks of life from throughout the country. Although he is still relatively new to the realm of Israeli wheelchair basketball, his teammates have warmly welcomed him and help him feel at home.
The power of sports in general, and Paralympic sports in particular for children with disabilities, is extraordinary. Since his introduction to the world of wheelchair basketball, Amit has dreams and goals. He has learned the power of teamwork, of dedication, of persistence, and of respect. These are lessons that should be available to all children of all abilities.
As quoted in Coach Trooper Johnson’s email signature, “The practice of sport is a human right.” – the Olympic Charter.