I’ve played wheelchair basketball on five of the seven continents . I’ve played in tournaments from the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, where entire stadiums were erected just for the Olympic games and every amenity you could think of was state of the art, to Chetumal Mexico where local athletes organized the cities’ first international tournament and a pair of local women prepared breakfast lunch and dinner for all the teams on picnic tables out side of the gym. I’ve made friends with athletes all over the globe and experienced cultures I only knew about from movies. One of the biggest things I’ve learn about human nature is that all peoples and cultures love to have banquets after a tournament and the “banquet speeches” are almost always extremely boring in any language!
I can think of one notable exception to this rule that would changed the way I look at my role in wheelchair basketball and in the world. This banquet was in 2004 in Whitewater Wisconsin, where I played college basketball. My team had just won the college title and were halfheartedly listening to the speakers while looking forward to celebrating our win at an after party. The last speaker of the night was Brad Hedrick from the University of Illinois. I was fully prepared for more of the same, “inspiration blah blah blah”, or “hard work and dedication blah blah blah”, material to mark a few more boxes on the old banquet bingo card in other words. What I got was something very different.
Brad Hedrick spoke like a coach giving a halftime speech, his intensity and borderline enraged tone commanded attention from everyone in the room. He talked about all the people in the past that have worked to make this opportunity for us possible. He talked about the first vets from World War II that started the game, about the men and women who volunteered their time to start the college division in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and those who started the Paralympic movement. Then he paused, looking out on a room full of cocky college kids who felt like they were the kings of wheelchair basketball, and told us point blank we will never be able to pay them back for all they had done for us. You could hear a pin drop.
He then told us how we could only pay it forward because the work that was done before us was too much for one person to pay back.
He spoke about our duty to coach youth, volunteer to work on fundraisers, and find ways to give back to our sport and community. This was the first time I had heard the phrase “pay it forward” and it hit home. This was early in my career, I had only played three or four years at this point, and I began to think about all the opportunities I’ve had through wheelchair basketball and the people behind those opportunities.
The first team I joined was the Cincinnati Slammers a local club team, I started playing for them when I was nineteen. This was my first experience being part of a team in an adapted sport and it was the first stepping stone to all I’ve done with the sport since. This team was around was because of the hard work of the team members raising funds, recruiting players and finding coaches (that were also volunteers). No one was paid and they made it work because of their love of the game.
My next stop in my career was the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where I played four years and earned my bachelor’s degree. Again you can ask the question, why would a small division three school in Wisconsin have a wheelchair basketball team? The answer is because people I’ve never met long before I came to the sport saw the value of giving athletes with a disability a chance to be a student athlete. There was no money in it, only a sense that it was worth their hard hard work and dedication to create the opportunity I was benefiting from. These are only a few examples from my career of opportunities I’ve had. I would have to write a book to list them all and they were all possible because of people I can never pay back.
As I let Brad Hedrick’s speech sink in, I realized I could pay them forward. My efforts were pretty small while in college. I talked to my teammates a lot about the importance of helping the kids playing wheelchair basketball in the area and found that a lot of my them felt the same way. My college teammates and I would start helping out the local junior wheelchair basketball team (twelve the eighteen year old players) in Milwaukee with practice on the Saturdays we didn’t travel. We would also volunteer our time at the summer wheelchair basketball camps in Whitewater and at the University of Alabama.
After college I began playing in Europe for club teams with the funding to bring in professional players for nine month contracts. This left my summers free and I started volunteering for a bigger coaching role at the junior camps I had worked in the past. I found I really enjoyed working with youth and was becoming pretty good teaching the fundamentals of the game. During these summer camps, I first had the idea that coaching a junior team could be the way I gave back to the game after I finished playing professionally.
I finished my last sports contract overseas this past June and have since year returned to the Cincinnati area. I took a job at a company called Skool Aid that a high school friend of mine owned, and I also started working part time at Cincinnati Recreation Commission’s Division of Therapeutic Recreation. I knew I wanted to volunteer my time helping to coach a junior team but found out that there were no longer any wheelchair basketball teams in Cincinnati. I started calling around and found the the nearest team to me was the Junior Minutemen in Dayton, Ohio. I contacted the president of Miami Valley Adapted Sports, the organization that runs the team, and asked if I could help out. He told me that would be great and that practices were held on Saturday mornings at nine o’clock. I now am the head coach of this team and really enjoy the opportunity to help young athletes learn the game that has given me so many opportunities. However this does require me to wake up at six in the morning on Saturdays and has lead to the creation of what I have started calling “no fun Fridays” but it worth it.
As summer turned to fall I continued to enjoy coaching the Junior Minutemen but it always bothered me that the team I started playing with in Cincinnati was now defunct and no opportunities existed in my hometown for individuals with a disability to play on a wheelchair basketball team in Cincinnati. We had a weekly program at CRC (Cincinnati Recreation Commission) for wheelchair basketball but my boss (Adam Ayers) and I were having a hard time getting enough participants for this program. We came to the realization that it’s hard to get people into the sport when you don’t have enough people in the gym to actually play. While talking to my other boss, Ian at Skool Aid about this problem, he had a great idea of opening the program up to individuals who don’t have a disability. This way we could get enough people in the gym to play five-on-five or four-on-four. We had a program at Skool Aid where we speak at school assemblies and then bring basketball wheelchairs for the students to try the sport in an exhibition game against Ian and me. So we already had a fleet of nine chairs and CRC had another nine or so. We started calling friends to play and got the word out to wheelchair athletes in the area and started growing the program. By the end of November we averaged ten to twelve participants a week, and a balance of about half with a disability and half without. We now have wheelchair basketball back in Cincinnati — at least in a recreational setting.
I found I now have a team to help me pay it forward and grow wheelchair basketball in Cincinnati with Ian, Adam, the folks at CRC and the athletes that show up every week for the love of the game. Ian, Adam and I share a vision of starting a team next season and are working to make it a reality, so the next nineteen year old kid like I was, might have all the opportunities I’ve had, and one day be able to pay it forward.
Jacob Counts has been playing wheelchair basketball since 1999. He recently returned to the US after playing professionally in Europe for four years. He currently coaches youth basketball, helps run basketball practices (open to the public) at Cincinnati’s LeBlond Center, and works for Skool Aid, an organization providing after and in school programs in Greater Cincinnati.