Wheelchair basketball takes MU player to international glory

Friday, August 31, 2007 | 12:57 a.m. CDT; updated 12:27 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
John Gilbert (No. 23) speeds down court on a fastbreak during a scrimmage Thursday with the MU wheelchair basketball team.

COLUMBIA — John Gilbert already had an impressive resume coming into this summer. He is a two-time MVP for the MU wheelchair basketball team and an All-American from 2005 through 2007. Now the MU junior can add gold medal-winner to that list.

Gilbert was a member of the 12-person U.S. national wheelchair basketball team that earned a gold medal this month at the 2007 Para Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

By winning the gold medal, the United States earned the right to compete in the Paralympics in 2008. To make the team, Gilbert must go through another tryout session.

Gilbert had been recruited since he was in eighth grade. He had schools such as Arizona, Wisconsin-Whitewater, Oklahoma State, Texas-Arlington and Southwest Minnesota looking at him, so it was no surprise that he made the national team.

The process began in April in Birmingham, Alabama, at the olympic training facility. The tryout consisted of three days of training drills, mostly dedicated to scrimmages.

Gilbert was one of only 12 people chosen from a field of 36. The 12 players and alternates were informed of the choice after the third day of training.

The team then had training camps once a month before going to Brazil on Aug. 6.

Gilbert, who was introduced to the sport in 1997, said going to Brazil was a thrill.

“Playing in Brazil was one of the best times of my life,” Gilbert said. “We were there accomplishing what we went down there to do: win the gold.”

Besides winning the gold medal, Gilbert said one of the most exciting parts of the trip was playing Brazil.

“That was crazy. The auditorium was completely packed,” Gilbert said. “They were all chanitng ‘Brazil, Brazil.’ The floor was vibrating. There were definitely a good 5,000-6,000 people in there. They would boo us when we did something they didn’t like. It was an amazing experience. I was really honored to be able to experience that.”

It was not only a fun experience, it was one that let him grow as a player.

“Playing with this group of individuals was a great experience for me,” Gilbert said. “All the veteran players on the team helped me out greatly because I was the rookie.”

He said that he learned a big lesson while playing in Brazil.

“Communication is huge. That’s one thing we (MU) need to work on this year,” Gilbert said. “One of our main goals is to communicate more. We communicated last year, but just seeing how much more Team USA communicated just makes me much more aware.”

He admits that playing at this level made him pause.

“That was definitely my first international game, so I was a little nervous,” he said. “I went into my first game in the second or third quarter. I scored eight points, got several steals and a few rebounds.”

MU coach Steve Paxton helped Gilbert prepare for the international experience.

“I knew he was getting the invitation, and him and I talked about what he could expect,” Paxton said. “I’ve been to a few tryouts. I really just wanted him to realize what he was getting ready to go and deal with.”

Paxton said he thinks that this experience will help Gilbert as a player and as a leader, and it will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team.

“I just noticed that he seemed to understand the things that we had talked about the past two years a little bit better,” Paxton said. “Well the next thing is ‘Can you now help me help the team understand these things?’ Things like his leadership and his subtle understanding of these things. I’m just excited for this year.”

Gilbert’s mother, Robin Gilbert, was overjoyed that her son participated in the tournament.

“I was proud of him,” she said. “I was happy for him. He was so excited.”

She also said that from what she has seen, John Gilbert has not let his time with the national team go to his head.

“John’s a very confident person, but I didn’t see anything different attitude-wise,” she said.

Up next for John Gilbert is the beginning of the season for the MU team. It started practice Monday in preparation for the first tournament of the season on Oct. 13-14 in St. Louis. After the season, Gilbert will start training to tryout for the Paralympic team that will compete in China in August of 2008, and he has every intention of making that team.

“If you know John, you don’t feel sorry for him at all,” Robin Gilbert said. “He’s gone places that we’ve only dreamed about.John’s the kind of person, that if you tell him he can’t do something, he’ll just prove you wrong.”

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