Column: Here’s to my other family

By Josh George

It’s like a family. We have our own jokes, our own stories and our own games (usually euchre). We look forward to spending long periods of time together eating, sleeping and practicing in close quarters 24 hours a day. We check up on each other, make fun of each other and encourage each other. We are wheelchair basketball players, drawn together by a thirst for competition and love for the game.

It is because of the family that I was in tears when a staff infection left me hospitalized for the last three weeks of the fall semester. I missed them. Sure, I cursed the tubes coming out of my arms and the hard earned muscles that seemed to melt off my body. But the fact that I couldn’t join my Illini teammates every morning for practice hurt. The fact that I had to miss the biggest tournament of my young career on the national team hurt.

The day after New Years I got to join my family again after a month-and-a-half without them. I got to play basketball again after six weeks of letting my muscles waste away and it was great. Sure I was out of shape and was jumping into long days of two or three practices, but I was with my teammates.

There is something that athletes learn very early in their careers, it’s always easier when you’re not alone. This is true even in non-team sports. We learn this when we are so young that our teams only practice once or twice a week and our moms or dads make us go outside and practice shooting on the nine-and-a-half to ten-and-a-half-foot hoop in the driveway (seriously, are those hoops ever regulation height?). This point is reiterated year after year when circumstances cause us to train alone during the off-season.

My teammates know this. But, upon my return, many playfully gave me a hard time about being in the hospital -“Way to almost die,” or “Damn, did security confiscate your guns on the flight home?” (thank you athletic trainers) -they also kept me motivated to make a quick recovery back to playing form. I can’t remember ever feeling as tired in the middle of practice as I did when I got back. Every time I looked up, though, there was one of my teammates – my brothers – working hard and you can never get outdone by your brother. So I kept working hard.

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    My family reunion came to an end this past weekend when I got to see my national team teammates at a wheelchair basketball tournament in Birmingham, Ala. Each teammate I approached greeted me with a hug, shouted at me for getting sick at the most inopportune time and then suited up with their team to play some ball against mine. Games were of course sprinkled with friendly trash talk and followed by more hugs (think Christmas day, except your family plays a game of basketball instead of opening presents).

    As part of this family you are never alone. While I was sick, they called me on the phone. While I was huffing and puffing my way back into shape, they stayed on me. And when I was reunited with each member of my extended family, their faces beamed with a joy to see me that equaled my joy to see them.

    It was away from the court, though, that I realized just how much fun it is to be a part of this family and back with them again. One of my new teammates – my Swedish brother – made an offering of a peanut butter cookie to the euchre gods before coming back from 8-5 to beat my partner and I, causing the whole room to collapse laughing. About as surprising as when your senile grandmother woops your butt in Monopoly.

    Here’s to family. Adieu.

    Josh George is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].