Injured athlete takes different path

By Joshua George

Jennifer Warkins never dreamt that she would become one of the best wheelchair basketball players in the world.

In high school, playing for Stevenson High outside Chicago, Warkins played varsity volleyball and softball. But it was basketball where Warkins shined and the college recruiters noticed. Her future seemed clear until her junior year, when the first of three ligament tears on the same knee put her off the court.

The recruiters disappeared but the athlete did not. Warkins eventually discovered that her injury made her eligible to play wheelchair basketball. Today, one year after graduating from the University of Illinois with a doctorate in Leisure Studies with a focus in Disability Sport, Warkins has two national championships and a Paralympics behind her.

What she doesn’t have is a future in basketball.

In a sports-crazy country where the NFL rules Sundays in the winter, baseball rules October and the Olympics rules NBC for a fortnight every four years, some of the greatest athletes in the world, playing a sport invented in the United States, have no options in professional sports.

Pro leagues in wheelchair basketball have developed in several European countries including Spain, Italy and Germany. Though teams are partially government-sponsored, the majority of their funding comes from private corporations.

The National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) in the United States is little more than an organized recreational league, with only four teams in its top division and no corporate sponsors. Elite players, like Warkins, are forced to choose between a paycheck and their passion.

Mike Frogley, head coach of the University’s men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams and the Canadian national team, is well aware of the culture of sport in the United States.

“We want to see the most perfect, most pristine kind of athlete,” Frogley said. “That’s what our image of an athlete is. And despite the supposed progressiveness and forward thinking of the United States, we think of an individual that plays wheelchair basketball as defective, less than perfect, unable.”

The End of a Career

It was the biggest game of the season for the Stevenson High Lady Patriots. They were ranked No. 4 in the country and were going up against the top-ranked team in the country from Pekerington, Ohio in the last tournament of the regular season. Nearly 5,000 fans at Depaul University’s Lakeshore Athletic Center roared. Stevenson High had won every game in its season by double-digit margins and was looking to continue its streak.

Jennifer Warkins, the team’s starting small forward and outside threat, was averaging 10 to 12 points per game on a team boasting future WNBA all-star Tamika Catchings. Recruiting letters from Division-I schools had been filling Warkins’ mailbox, as well as the mailboxes of the four other starters.

In the second quarter, the Lady Patriots were playing great and gunning for a win when Warkins’ collided with a girl on the opposing team. She tore the ACL in her left knee.

Stevenson went on to win the game, claiming the No. 1 national ranking before going on to win the IHSA Championship. Warkins watched the championship run from the bench.

“She wasn’t bitter. I just sensed what any one of us would feel. She was just frustrated that she couldn’t play,” her coach, Frank Mattucci said.

Despite a highly successful rehab with Chicago Bulls’ strength coach Al Vermeil, the wave of D-I recruiting letters was reduced to a dribble.

In the mid-90s coaches were reluctant to put stock in a player who had torn her ACL. Warkins was forced to see her dream of playing college basketball disappear, as one-by-one she saw each of her fellow starters go to D-I schools on scholarship.

“I just remember there not being really anything after the injury,” Warkins said. “I decided there wasn’t going to be anything after basketball, so academics were going to be as important to me,” she said.

Warkins was completely unaware that a whole world of wheelchair basketball was out there.

State of Wheelchair Basketball

Disabled soldiers created the game of wheelchair basketball after WWII. Since then the sport has spread throughout the world and in the United States, spurred development of the NWBA.

Still, options for the game’s best American athletes remain limited. Only eight universities in the country have men’s wheelchair basketball programs. Only two of those include women’s programs.

Few people outside the players and coaches know the game takes as much training and skill as the able-bodied game. After college, when the best athletes in able-bodied sports compete for slots in professional leagues and circuits, wheelchair athletes have nowhere to take their talents.

“If you’re really talented, and I mean one of the top three to five players coming out of college, you can go and play in Europe,” Frogley said.

Frogley says it frustrates him that his athletes haven’t attracted the kind of local following that their successes warrant.

On those rare occasions when local or national media take an interest, stories inevitably overlook the athletics in favor of inspirational tales about people who refuse to let a wheelchair keep them from living. He sees wrestling matches sell out at the University of Iowa and water polo sell out at UCLA. But nowhere in the country does wheelchair basketball draw that kind of support.

“A component of that will be teaching our fans about the sport,” he said. “Why do they go see water polo at UCLA? Because they grow up playing water polo, those fans know water polo.

“We don’t have a fan base that knows wheelchair basketball. We need to be able to explain it to them, educate people as to the value of it, the athleticism of it, as to the skill involved, the talent involved.”

Progress has been made in how wheelchair basketball is viewed – in Canada. This past year the Canadian men’s wheelchair basketball team was named the Male Team of the Year by Sport Canada. It was the first time a team assembled of people with disabilities has won that award, beating out able-bodied basketball, and even hockey.

Out in front is Pat Anderson, starting big man for the Canadian national team and arguably the best wheelchair basketball player in the world.

“No longer are you being valued for your disability, you’re being valued for your athleticism,” Frogley said. “The media doesn’t talk about Pat Anderson and say, ‘Oh isn’t he remarkable, isn’t he an inspiration.’ They talk about, ‘Yeah, Pat went 13-21 from the floor, scored 28 points.’ He’s talked about the same way they talk about Lebron James on ESPN.”

Becoming an Athlete Again

Unaware of the opportunities available to her in wheelchair basketball, Warkins turned down the handful of schools that were still showing interest and came to the University of Illinois. She tried to quench her thirst for competition by playing softball, but tore her left ACL again at the end of her freshman year. Doctors told her she had to take it easy after that.

“Sometimes I would hop into [pickup basketball] games where the pace was a lot slower, so I could spot up on the outside and they could pass it to me. I wouldn’t exactly call it playing, I was participating I guess,” Warkins said

After her second ACL tear Warkins no longer considered herself an athlete, but continued to stay on the fringes of sport, acquiring a degree in sports management and working with the football team.

“That was my outlet for sports, being in charge of others’ sports,” she said.

While getting her masters in education, friends on the University’s wheelchair basketball team showed Warkins that her days as an athlete were not over. Being medically unable to play able-bodied basketball, Warkins qualified to play wheelchair basketball.

Warkins was ecstatic to find that her athletic career was not over, but she was lucky to have found such an opportunity.

Illinois is one of only three Division-I schools with a wheelchair sports program. Only Illinois and the University of Arizona have women’s programs.

Finding out about those programs is often a matter of luck, especially for players who haven’t grown up playing the sport.

Knowing that she had to be a student to be eligible, Warkins put off her professional plans and enrolled in the University’s Ph.D. program to give herself the opportunity to play basketball. She put in hours of training each day, becoming one of the quickest and best-shooting post players in the game, making the USA team for the first time just six months after beginning competitive play. She also became a pivotal member of a University team that won three straight National Championships.

Mattucci, her high school coach, said he’s not surprised to see Warkins rise to the top of the wheelchair game.

“Jen could score. She could shoot the ball real well. She never complained and was always a good worker,” he said.

Last summer her career caught up with an old high school teammate’s. As Tamika Catchings started for the gold medal-winning USA Women’s basketball team at the Athens Olympics, Warkins helped lead the USA women’s wheelchair basketball team to a gold medal-winning performance in the Paralympics.

But even after reaching the top echelon of her sport, Warkins is constantly reminded of how little the general public knows about the sport.

Warkins remembers a young boy in a wheelchair who approached her in an airport when she was traveling to a training camp. He was in a wheelchair himself and asked her about her chair. She told him it was a special chair for playing basketball.

“And he looked at me,” Warkins said, “and was like, ‘I can play basketball?’ He’s like 12 years old and has no idea he could play a sport. Something’s wrong with that picture.”

Paralympics vs. Olympics

Even wheelchair athletes who are able to make it to the Paralympics – a competition for the best of the best in disabled sports – find it difficult to get support.

Frogley points out the differences in support for Olympians and Paralympians, stressing that the support groups for Paralympic athletes are “not nearly as lucrative and not nearly as many.”

Recently Paralympians have been included in the Olympic Job Opportunities Program. OJOP sets athletes up with any of a number of employers who have agreed to give the athletes time off for training and competition.

But to qualify for OJOP wheelchair basketball players need to consistently be a member of a United States national team that finishes with either a medal or a top-six finish in international play, depending on the number of teams in the tournament.

Differences between Olympians and Paralympians are deep. Paralympians have a far smaller budget for uniforms and apparel, and get significantly smaller stipends for winning medals and other outstanding performances. Above all, Paralympians find next to no media coverage in the United States.

Paralympians returning from the Athens Paralympics had very few ways of continuing their high level of play and training. Where European athletes return home to professional and semi-professional leagues, and Canadian athletes return to substantial monthly government stipends, United States athletes are harder pressed. While the best of the best go to Europe to play, most stay in the United States.

Playing in the States and the NWBA has many drawbacks. It is difficult to find the coaching and level of competition that top-level athletes are looking for. Though the league is larger than it has ever been before, there are only four teams in its top division. The league does not offer monetary compensation either, meaning athletes have to find full time jobs to support themselves.

Will Waller won two national championships with the University and has played on numerous national teams. He points out that it is much harder for a wheelchair athlete to find private sponsorship.

Waller says that after school, what was once a team sport becomes an individual sport. You no longer have a coach and teammates who you see with any great frequency.

“As long as I was involved it was going to take a lot of individual training and effort to play against a certain caliber of player,” Waller said.

“Where wheelchair sports are lagging – especially in the United States – is to get endorsements is almost a miracle.”

Trying to Continue

Since the Paralympics, Warkins has made many efforts to keeping her basketball career alive.

Immediately after Athens, Warkins moved to Spain to play professional basketball. In many European leagues, rules have been implemented to allow some of the top female players in the world to play in men’s leagues.

Despite the opportunity to play basketball all day, every day while financially supported, Warkins stayed in Spain for less than three months. Along with her disappointment in team chemistry, Warkins was also recently engaged and found it very difficult to plan a wedding from across the Atlantic.

Warkins returned to the United States where, having finished her PhD, she accepted a teaching position at the University and played out her last year of eligibility for the University.

Warkins refuses to let her basketball career end, and knows it won’t be as easy now. She explains that if you are lucky enough to find a job in the United States that is willing to give you time off to compete, that might be the best option. She understands, though, that you have to be lucky enough to find an employer that allows you time off for competitions and training camps.

Warkins has her sights set at playing in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

“How I’m gong to get there I don’t really know.”