Michael and Jonathan have a lot in common.
They are both in their early 20s. They both have happy, bubbly personalities and heart-warming smiles. They went to the same high school. They go to the same church. And even though they are both pretty passionate about basketball, neither one of them played on the high school team.
But that doesn’t stop them from playing together on their congregation’s church league basketball team. Only when they are on the floor together, observers tend to be more focused on their differences than on their similarities. Jonathan is nearly 6-foot-5, agile and athletic enough that he often draws double-teams; Michael, whose movements are constrained by physiological disability, can only go as far and as fast as his motorized wheelchair will take him.
As far as the two young men are concerned, however, they are just a couple of guys playing ball.
“He sets killer screens,” said Jonathan, who loves to pull up for jump shots from behind Michael’s sturdy machine. “And he plays killer defense. It’s great to have him out there.”
Especially since they usually only have five players at the games.
“The rest of us get tired,” Jonathan said. “But Michael can go forever — or until the battery on his wheelchair runs down.”
The other teams don’t seem to mind having Michael out on the floor with them — killer screens and defense notwithstanding. That might be because Michael and Jonathan’s team isn’t exactly a threat.
More likely it’s because they are touched and inspired by Michael’s energy, tenacity and courage. He has spent a lifetime overcoming obstacles large and small, and has managed to do so with wit, enthusiasm and pluck. He has limited ability to speak, so he has become a fine and expressive writer. His body holds him back, so he uses his mind to explore the world. And even though he isn’t able to do everything his peers do socially, he has found ways to become a friend and favorite companion to those who know him.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Michael,” Jonathan said. “He’s fun. He’s funny. He just makes you feel good when you’re around him.”
Except, maybe, when you’re getting blocked by one of his killer screens.
“The thing I’ve learned from Michael is that even though there are challenges in our lives that may limit us in some way, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep pushing those limits,” Jonathan said. “I’ve seen Michael write amazing articles for the newspaper, minister to others in our church congregation and play basketball — all things that some would say he shouldn’t be able to do. Yet my man does all that and more.
“He is my example of what I want to be someday,” Jonathan added. “I may stand a few inches taller than him physically, but inside — where it really counts — he towers over me.”
I’ve known and been inspired by a number of Michaels in my lifetime — people who face significant challenges in their lives as a consequence of disease, disaster or DNA, but who refuse to allow themselves to be fully, completely disabled by disability.
Take Robert M. Hensel, for example. Born with spina bifida, he has become a crusader for those who wish to be known less for their disabilities and more for their abilities — different though they may be. He once set a world record for the longest non-stop wheelie in a wheelchair.
How can you think of someone who can pop a 6-mile wheelie as “disabled”?
“I have a disability — yes, that’s true,” Hensel acknowledged. “But all that really means is I may have to take a slightly different path than you.”
Especially if there’s a killer screen that needs to be set.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr