Dedication pays off in wheelchair basketball

Sunday, June 8, 2008 | 10:30 p.m. CDT; updated 1:57 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Heavily recruited as a wheelchair basketball player since eighth grade, junior John Gilbert chose MU over many other schools.

COLUMBIA — The atmosphere was tense. John Gilbert’s teammate threw the basketball over Gilbert’s head. Time was running out. Gilbert raced after the basketball for a last-second heave.

He shot the ball sideways from behind the basket. The buzzer sounded as the ball soared through the air. The crowd held its breath as the ball swished through the basket. Fans cheered. Gilbert had tied the game, and his team eventually won in triple overtime.

“You always dream about scoring the buzzer-winning shot. That was one game we were down, and I was determined not to lose,” said Gilbert, as he reminisced about his most memorable wheelchair basketball game.

It was Gilbert’s senior year of high school. The game was part of a junior tournament hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The tournament was for everyone below college level. Gilbert’s team, the Nebraska Red Dawgs beat the Indiana Pacers.

Gilbert, now a junior majoring in biology at MU, was introduced to the game at age 10 when a friend and future teammate suggested he learn how to play. Gilbert’s mom had reservations about him playing wheelchair basketball because one of the players got “whaled on” and needed seven stitches in the first game she saw. However, Gilbert begged her to let him play, and she eventually yielded.

In the past 11 years, he has played enthusiastically for many teams, including MU’s. A year ago, he played for the U.S. National Wheelchair Basketball Team in the Para Pan-American Games in Brazil, winning a gold medal. This earned him the right to try out for one of 12 spots on the national Paralympics team heading to Beijing in September. Gilbert tried out for Team USA towards the end of the Spring 2008 semester. The tryouts consisted of 12-hour days of nonstop basketball.

“I was pretty tired before the end of it, and coming back to school was not fun, but it was worth it,” Gilbert said.

Although he said he played his best, Gilbert did not make the cut for the 2008 Paralympics. Instead, he was offered a spot as an alternate.

“I’m still honored, but bummed out because I didn’t make the team,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert will only go to Beijing if one of the two players in the Class 1 position is unable to compete. Gilbert said he does not know what will happen if a player gets sick while in Beijing.

“I would assume they could get me out there pretty quick, but I’m not 100 percent sure,” Gilbert said.

The week before Gilbert’s final exams, one of the players on the Paralympics team could not play because of work circumstances. Gilbert stepped in to play in the Paralympics World Cup in Manchester, England. Gilbert played 30 minutes in the championship game and said it was definitely worth playing. The team won the gold medal.

The sport is the reason Gilbert decided to stay in Columbia this summer. The facilities at the Recreation Center on MU campus are better than the ones in his small hometown of Fairfax, Mo., and he takes full advantage of it.

“We have nothing like this in my hometown,” Gilbert said. “Off-season conditioning is pretty rigorous but I don’t have the pressure of school, and that’s a big pressure.”

During the summer, Gilbert’s typical day consists of about four hours of scrimmaging, lifting, cardio, shooting, and wheeling around Stankowski Field.

Although the game has taken him many places, Gilbert knows that it takes a lot of work. He said he is more than willing to put in the long hours for the chance of making a thrilling play and winning the game.

“It would have to be fun for me to wake up at 6 a.m. every day,” Gilbert said. “And the nationals, it’s an added motivation.”

Gilbert said he plays for himself and for his teammates.

“I would do about anything for my teammates, because I love them all to pieces,” he said. “I do it for them, I do it for Mizzou, and I do it for the people.”

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