By Steve Frandzel
The thrill of taking a last-second shot is one of Joshua Gess’ indelible memories from playing wheelchair basketball at Auburn University. With 6 seconds on the clock — and down a point, 40-39, against Shepherd Spinal Center — Auburn called a timeout to map one last play. The team fanned out and jockeyed for position. Gess rolled off a pick and snagged the inbound pass at the right edge of the free-throw line.
“It was pass or shoot,” he said. “No one was open, so I took the shot. It’s all still so clear in my mind; I’ll never forget exactly where I was on the court when I missed. The buzzer sounded, and I rolled away feeling so dejected. We’d played so hard.”
Immediately, Gess’ teammates rallied around him. Each one laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder and offered words of encouragement.
“To have that moment where your team lifts you back up — well, that was awesome, unforgettable,” he said.
During another tournament, a young boy wearing Auburn gear collected autographs from every player. “Here was an able-bodied kid who looked up to us as athletes representing the university,” Gess said. “It really moved me.”
And on yet another day, he was rolling through campus when a student stopped him and said, “You played a hell of a game the other day.” Gess, taken aback, barely sputtered a thank you.
“I’d like more disabled students to share those types of experiences — the pride of throwing on the school colors, the rush of hearing hundreds of cheering fans, many of them able-bodied — and just to feel a sense of belonging,” Gess said. “It still gives me chills when I think about it.”
In September 2007, Gess was a 24-year-old doctoral student when an accident left him paralyzed below the waist. Basketball had always been a huge part of his life. Now, forced to watch from the sidelines, Gess regarded the game as just another layer of frustration weighing down his long, strenuous rehabilitation. At the repeated urging of Auburn’s wheelchair basketball coach, Gess acquiesced and agreed to give the sport a try. It gave him back the game he loved and also offered a means to re-engage with the world at large.
“Disabled people can be reclusive,” Gess said. “It takes some effort to put ourselves back into circulation, and playing basketball again was a big step in that direction.”
Gess describes wheelchair basketball as a combination of chess and demolition derby. “A lot of strategy, a lot of contact,” he said. “People watching for the first time are often surprised by the intensity and the skill required.”
He wanted to share it all. After settling in at the College of Engineering in fall 2015, Gess set his sights on developing a wheelchair basketball program at Oregon State University. The only option at the time was the intramural league at Dixon Recreation Center. His goal is to join a sanctioned league and play in regional tournaments against community-based teams within five years. Eventually he’d like Oregon State to host a tournament and, one day, even play at the intercollegiate level.
Gess contacted Sam Logan, assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences (CPHHS), who runs adaptive sports programs for young people with disabilities. He also has regular access to a basketball court on campus.
“Sam said, ‘We have a gym, we have the chairs, let’s do this,’” Gess said.
By spring 2018, Gess was coaching Rolling Beavers practices in the Women’s Building gymnasium. Six disabled players — three students and three from the community — had signed up. So had eight able-bodied students from SPHHS.
“I find that quite amazing, but they’re learning the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Gess said.
Interest in the sport among able-bodied players, while rare, is growing. At Fort Benning, Georgia, a short drive from Auburn, able-bodied soldiers and veterans have taken up wheelchair basketball so they can join their disabled buddies on the court.
For Gess, having additional players means he can run full-court, five-on-five scrimmages, which greatly accelerates a team’s development. So does having a permanent practice facility. With the support of SPHHS, the Women’s Building gym has been designated as the team’s official home, which demonstrates a high level of commitment to adaptive sports, according to Gess.
“My dream is to see the emblem for Oregon State Wheelchair Basketball prominently displayed above the building entrance,” he said. “Imagine recruiting students and telling them, ‘This is our home. This is where you’ll play.’ Most schools don’t have that.”
He also predicts a high level of fan support because of the region’s inclusive culture.
“Auburn crowds typically exceeded 200. I believe we could draw four times that number,” Gess said. “For disabled students to see so many able-bodied people cheering for disabled athletes will really encourage disabled students to want to be part of the community in a broader way. It certainly did that for me.”
Photo credit: Karl Maasdam