Wheelchair basketball helps wounded warriors feel pride of competition

The Marine and Air Force wheelchair basketball teams compete at last year's Warrior Games.

The Marine and Air Force wheelchair basketball teams compete at last year's Warrior Games, held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Spring, Colo. Photo courtesy of DVIDS.

Ask Billy Demby what the benefits of wheelchair basketball are and his answer is simple: everything. And he should know. A Vietnam veteran who lost both of his legs below the knee, Billy has been playing wheelchair basketball since 1975, and coaching the Marine Corps’ Warrior Games team since the Games started three years ago.

“What I enjoy is watching these guys come out and play and try something different,” Billy said. “Giving these guys these sports, not just basketball but other sports too, is helping them get adjusted to civilian life. It gets them back on their feet, so to speak.”

The first challenge of wheelchair basketball is getting used to the wheelchair itself, Billy said, especially for those athletes who don’t use a wheelchair regularly to get around. Once they can handle the chair, athletes move on to learning how to handle the ball. And then comes the biggest challenge of all.

“We have to teach them how to control the chair and the ball at the same time,” Billy said. “I teach finesse in this game.”

And, Billy said, he hopes those lessons and that finesse carry over into civilian life as well. To motivate his athletes to push themselves and explore new options despite their injuries, Billy often uses himself as an example.

“I used to love running when I had legs,” Billy said, but he never competed in a marathon until after his legs were gone, and he completed the Marine Corps marathon in a wheelchair with a finishing time of two hours and 30 minutes. “It gave me a pride to come and compete. I look at myself a little different. I challenged myself more when I became a person with a disability than I did as an able-bodied person.”

He encourages and expects the same of his warrior athletes, regardless of the outcome of the Games themselves. Participating in adaptive sports such as wheelchair basketball is all about exposing wounded warriors to all the options and resources there are to help them live full, productive and happy lives.

“You can start to see yourself change,” Billy said. “It’s giving you options to do the things you love, just in a different way.”