Teen athletes battle big challenges to make it to National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament
Two local teens who grew up playing sports had their lives changed forever because of physical disabilities.
But now, a local nonprofit has helped them adapt to that life change and open a whole new set of opportunities, including an upcoming trip to the wheelchair basketball nationals.
Luke Robinson, 16, and Jake Eastwood, 15, both grew up with big dreams they had to alter when life threw them a curve ball.
They’re players on Seattle Adaptive Sports Jr Sonics Wheelchair Basketball Team.
Seattle Adaptive Sports, a nonprofit, is the only club in Western Washington for kids and adults to play para-sports, or adaptive sports – where people with physical disabilities use special equipment to play re-tooled versions of sports like soccer, hockey, and wheelchair basketball. Kids from age 3 all the way to the adult league can play sled hockey and wheelchair basketball.
Luke grew up playing basketball and other sports, but knew that could change because he has a condition that runs in the family.
“I have a degenerative condition, the same thing my dad has,” Luke said. “It basically started when I was younger I had symptoms of not being able to walk quote-unquote normally. I was playing able bodies sports for a long time. My main sport was basketball, and then as I got older I started having trouble keeping up with other people, and as my condition got worse my muscles started getting tighter, and so it became harder to keep up with the more athletic kids.”
Because Luke’s dad and older brother both have the same condition, he was familiar with wheelchair basketball at Seattle Adaptive Sports. Luke’s dad and brother had been playing on teams for years, and that created an opportunity – but it was not one that Luke was necessarily eager to go after.
“The juniors team actually had four people for a local tournament, and they asked if I could play,” he said. “I ended up saying yes just because I wanted them to be able to play, but I had really wanted to play because I didn’t want to be confined to a wheelchair. But once I started playing in my first game I just really enjoyed it. I enjoyed like the bonds with the players, just being able to play without limitations. So I have been playing for the last three years.”
Jake also played sports most of his childhood, but things suddenly changed for him after a skiing accident a few years ago led doctors to discover he had bone cancer. Jake went through treatment for about a year, but in the end one of his legs had to be amputated; he got a prosthetic leg at 13.
“It was scary, like I didn’t want it to happen,” Jake said.
Jake’s dad, Chris, said it was a tough time for the Mill Creek family, but they had to keep looking forward.
“You started looking at, okay, what are the possibilities; you always have to be optimistic and look at the possibilities no matter what,” Chris said. “It’s hard, but you know, I think you just adapt and you really find out how strong you are when things really happen. And there are people who have a lot worse than we do, so…”
Chris took Jake to a Challenged Athletes Foundation event in Portland and by chance met Luke and his dad, who also lived in Mill Creek. The Robinsons started talking to Chris and Jake about Seattle Adaptive’s Wheelchair Basketball team.
Jake admitted that he wasn’t immediately sold on the idea.
“At first I didn’t really want to be in a wheelchair,” he said. “I don’t know, there is just something about it, I didn’t really want to be in one. But then after Luke kind of convinced me to do it … I ended up liking it after [sic] first games and first practices.”
Jake started playing with the Jr Sonics this last year, just 18 months after losing his leg. He credits the team with helping him get through the drastic life change.
“I have more people supporting me. They necessarily haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through, but they’ve gone through similar things, like they have something like a disability wrong with them, so I can relate to them,” he said. “Having the team and them being like your family, you can really make strong bonds.”
And Jr Sonics Coach Ben Chao said those bonds and sense of community are a big part of what Seattle Adaptive Sports is all about. But he said wheelchair basketball can also open some big doors for these kids.
“There’s the opportunity for these kids to go off and play college basketball in the future. We sent kids off to go play wheelchair basketball at a collegiate level with college scholarships,” he said. “So the kids who really have a vision for the future for themselves and want to be able to purse some great dreams, they may not have been able to go to an out-of-state school and pursue their academic dreams if they didn’t have wheelchair basketball as a vehicle to go do so.”
Getting that college scholarship is something both Luke and Jake are shooting for. For Jake, who is a freshman, it’s a couple years off. But Luke is a junior, so recruiters will start talking to him this year when they head to the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Louisville, Kentucky next week [April 12th-15].
“Coaches don’t really come and look at tournaments until nationals, which is in a couple weeks, so in a couple weeks I’ll probably start talking to coaches from different schools about what they have to offer and what I can offer them and just start to explore that opportunity and see where I might end up going to school,” Luke said.
The kids are excited to be heading to the nationals ranked 14th in the nation out of nearly 120 junior teams.
Luke remembered that the team set a goal at the beginning of the year to be a 16 seed, “and my coach and I were like, ‘That might be pushing it, but I think we can do it,’ and at one point we were ranked 12th in the country, so I am pretty proud of where this team is going.”
“Yeah, really proud,” Jake added. “I didn’t really know what to expect at first, but we just got top 16, so I’m ready for nationals.”
And even if they lose and fight their hardest, Luke said, “I’m still going to be proud of this team because it’s been a great season.”
None of this would have been possible without Seattle Adaptive Sports.
All of the coaches are volunteers and the club runs off donations, which they always need plenty of with teams traveling to Portland, Spokane and beyond for many of their regular season games and specialized wheelchairs that can cost up to $3,000. For more information on how to donate and get in on the raffle that Seattle Adaptive Sports is holding right now to help cover the trip to the nationals, visit SeattleAdaptiveSports.org.