Wheelchair basketball heals athletes

American coach Jess Markt has traveled the world training men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams, from India to Cambodia to the Palestinian territories.

This summer, one of the first teams he helped coach, the Afghan national women’s team, won its first international tournament in Indonesia.

“The most powerful thing for me has been getting to see the evolution that [the players] go through as a result of being able to participate in sport, and [their] outcomes both on and beyond the court,” Markt said at a recent International Committee of the Red Cross event in Boston.

Markt, 40, began playing wheelchair basketball after a 1996 car accident broke his back.

Man in wheelchair on basketball court dribbling basketball (© AP Images)
Jess Markt bounces a ball while training the first female wheelchair basketball team in the Gaza Strip. (© AP Images)

Markt recalls that when he began coaching the Afghan women in 2012, they were too nervous to practice in public. Sports for women with disabilities were unheard of in their community, and they worried about what their friends and family would think of them.

Those concerns fell by the wayside after the team won the Bali Cup International Tournament on July 30. The Afghan women returned home to a hero’s welcome, welcomed by with dignitaries and reporters.

“Going to that first tournament and coming home with a win has definitely made them local celebrities,” said Markt, who played in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association in the U.S. and has trained wheelchair basketball teams with the International Committee of the Red Cross for six years.

People in wheelchairs accepting trophy (Michael Glowacki)
The Afghanistan’s national women’s basketball team celebrates a victory. (Michael Glowacki)

America has a long history of supporting athletes like Markt. The U.S. government, for example, started a wheelchair program after World War II to rehabilitate injured soldiers. “Adaptive sports in the U.S. has since morphed into an international movement.

The Americans with Disabilities Act also has helped. That 1990 civil rights law protects 56.3 million Americans from discrimination in all areas of life, including work, school, transportation and sports. The U.S. law has served as an inspiration for other countries (here’s a timeline of events related to that law).

Markt recognizes that it can be hard for some people to understand the value of wheelchair basketball in countries where basic services are often lacking. But, he explained, “the impact of sport is so much bigger than just giving someone something fun to do in their leisure time. It also brings all these other components into play, in terms of social inclusion [and] building confidence in the participants.”

He knows from personal experience how athletics can fill a void. He was a 19-year-old high jumper at the University of Oregon when the car accident left him paralyzed. He adjusted to his new life and finished his degree, but he said it was not until he discovered wheelchair basketball several years later that he felt fully healed.

“Starting wheelchair basketball was the completion of my recovery from the injury, sort of that last piece that I didn’t realize I was missing,” he said.

Men in wheelchairs playing basketball (IWBF)
Athletes from Afghanistan and China compete at the Asia-Oceania Championships (IWBF)

The biggest surprise for Markt has been the uniformity of positive reactions he encounters as a coach. “You think of how massive the cultural difference is between players in Afghanistan and Cambodia, for example,” he said. “But in going to different places, no matter how different the culture or the language or the societies are, I’ve had very similar positive experiences with the players’ engagement and with society’s interest in what the players are doing.”