Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

What wheelchair basketball taught me about life and my disability

"Wheelchair basketball has taught me to look at things differently. Be open to trying new things. Appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into a craft."

My cerebral palsy is invisible to the eye, which made me think differently about my disability

I live with a form of cerebral palsy called mild spastic diplegia. (Mike Moore/CBC)

When competing in a sport, lots of athletes have their own routines.

For a basketball player like myself, it usually involves getting a light meal before the game, or listening to music before you hit the court to get yourself in the right headspace.

You put your jersey on, tie up your shoes, and get ready to hit the court.

I usually do all of these things, but with one extra step.

I take a seat, and strap myself into my wheelchair.

Dec. 3 is the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, observed by the United Nations as a day to promote the rights and well-being of people with disabilities.

I live with mild spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy affecting my hips and legs. Cerebral palsy affects lots of people in plenty of different ways. In my case, my hamstrings are just a little bit tighter than they should be. This makes my feet turn in when I walk, giving me a slight hobble.

My mom always calls it my swagger walk.

My CP is invisible to the eye, which made me think differently about my disability. You probably wouldn't be able to tell if I didn't tell you myself.

I've had multiple surgeries and procedures to help keep me on my feet, including eight Botox injections into my hamstrings in order to help keep muscles loose.

When you live with a disability, you don't want it to define what you can do in life. For me, that meant playing all the sports I wanted to regardless of my disability. 

I learned to skate, albeit poorly because of my horrible balance. I've also played soccer, softball and golf, but nothing drew my attention like basketball.

I've played basketball for 15 years. I featured in two high school provincial finals, and have two silver medals to show for it. I was drawn to the nature of the game and the skills involved, along with the pure enjoyment that came out of playing with my friends.

I was playing the game I loved, not letting my disability get in the way of what I wanted to do.

Then came 2014 — a year that would forever change my life.

It was early in our Grade 9 provincial semifinal game, and my Mobile Monarchs were looking to set the pace against rival St. Paul's. I got the ball at the top of the key, and put up a three-pointer before their giant of a centre could block me.

The contact from the contested shot sent me to the ground, breaking both of my wrists as I tried to catch myself.

Following two broken wrists in 2014, I decided to announce my retirement from high school basketball. (Submitted by April Kennedy)

I don't remember much about what followed. I told the referee I was OK, and told the player who had knocked me over that I wasn't. The drive from Beaconsfield Junior High to the Health Sciences Centre was the longest 12 minutes of my life.

 I also remember getting to the X-ray room, only to realize I couldn't move my left wrist back to normal after holding my broken right wrist for almost an hour. That's how I found out both my wrists were broken.

After four weeks in two casts, I decided to announce my retirement from high school ball. While my high school career was over, the next basketball chapter was only beginning.

The move didn't seem like much

Wheelchair basketball is incredibly similar to the standup game. Two teams work to score on a 10-foot net. Most basketball rules apply, including common fouls, travelling and scoring rules.

Except for the obvious — A $4,000, 30 pound wheelchair serves as your lower half.

Wheelchair basketball's lineup system also brings much more strategy to the game at times.

All players on a team are measured on a scale according to their level of disability, ranging from 1.0, someone with limited to no movement of their upper extremities, to 4.5, your able-bodied average joe. I fall in the top half of spectrum at 3.0, as I have full control of my upper body but am limited in side-to-side movement because of my hips. 

Earlier this year, I travelled to Alberta with the provincial wheelchair basketball team to compete in the 2019 Canada Winter Games. It was the first time Newfoundland had had a team since 2007. (Tony Hansen)

When creating a five-man lineup, these classifications become a point system where the five players on the floor cannot exceed a cumulative total of 15 points. This allows the game to be inclusive, forcing teams to shuffle lineups with able-bodied and less able players.

In a somewhat odd rule, any female on the court lowers the team's cumulative score by one, meaning a female with a classification of 1.0 essentially counts as a zero when on the floor.

I had been on and off with wheelchair basketball for about a year in 2014 but the two broken wrists accelerated my decision to take the game more seriously and move away from standup ball.

The move didn't seem like much. Hang up your jersey, take a seat in the chair and continue to play the game you love. Basketball, but in a different form.

However, it came with the largest mental hurdle I have ever faced.

When I first found out about wheelchair basketball, I was defiant in even trying it. My disability had never gotten in the way before, so why should I stop playing "regular" basketball? I thought the game didn't apply to me, simply because I didn't need a wheelchair.

As bad as it sounds, I saw the game as a step down from where I was. I was giving into my disability, allowing it to define me as a "disabled athlete" — something I never wanted to be.

Jumping the hurdle

Whenever I speak to people who have played wheelchair basketball or are playing it for the first time, the word that always seems to come up is "eye-opening." They speak about how their views have changed after getting in the chair, and a newfound respect for the athletes.

This respect was exactly what I found back in 2014, and ultimately needed.

Getting in the chair for the first time six years ago helped me change my way of thinking about being a disabled athlete, and of disabilities in general.

Since then, I've gotten to know my teammates, who have taught me so much not only about disabilities and living with a disability, but about life.

They include people like Liam Hickey, Alex Wells and Nicholas Arnold, three guys who taught me that nothing comes easy, and to always keep pushing. Stephanie Evans, one of the hardest working people I've ever met, who carries a smile everywhere she goes. And Gavin Baggs, our 12-year-old point guard who makes me laugh more than any teammate I've ever had.

I've learned a lot from all of my teammates — not only about the game of wheelchair basketball, but about life. (Submitted by Alex Kennedy)

Most important, I've learned that most disabled athletes don't like hearing the word "inspirational" to describe themselves. They don't see themselves as a form of "superhuman' as one commercial for the Paralympics described them.

They want to be seen as people, doing what they love to do.

Today, I've seen incredible growth in every single one of my teammates. We are all members of the provincial wheelchair basketball team, recently travelling to Alberta for the 2019 Canada Winter Games.

Wheelchair basketball has taught me to look at things differently. To be open to trying new things. To appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into a craft.

For years, I didn't want to be associated with my cerebral palsy.

It's when I got over the hurdle that my life changed forever.

Leading up to the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, I know there are people who feel the way I felt five years ago, defiant of letting their disability be a part of them. If I could leave these people with advice, it would be to know that it's OK to feel this way. I felt that way for a long time. 

Know that your disability doesn't define who you are.

You do.

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About the Author

Alex Kennedy works for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's.