GREENFIELD - For members of the Milwaukee Wheelchair Bucks basketball team, and many other wheelchair basketball players, overcoming challenges is a part of the game.
"These players have been through more challenges than anyone has been in their lives. ... It's very competitive. The athletes are unbelievable, and all these athletes have some sort of disability that they've overcome," said Steve Wilson, the Wheelchair Bucks' coach and teacher at Whitnall Middle School.
Wilson has coached wheelchair basketball for more than 20 years, for teams from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to U.S. men's team, and throughout his time has seen amazing challenges and victories.
"They're doing phenomenal things that all of us can do if you don't give up and you put your mind to it," Wilson said.
Whitnall students and others in the community got the opportunity to see these players doing phenomenal things firsthand the weekend of Feb. 10-12, when the Wheelchair Bucks tournament was held at Whitnall High School.
Wilson brought the tournament back to Whitnall around five years ago. For the Bucks, it's an opportunity to raise money. For all the teams a part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, the tournament is a chance to prepare for the upcoming national tournament by facing off with other top-rated teams.
Besides being on the nation's top teams, some of the players who competed at the tournament this year are also considered the best in the world, with a total of eight gold medalists from the Paralympics competing.
In addition to preparing for nationals, Wilson also hopes that by bringing these top athletes to the district, the students – and others who attend – will learn more about people with disabilities and be inspired to overcome their own challenges.
Recounting the different athletes he has worked with over the past two decades, Wilson gave multiple examples of exemplary athletes who had emerged victors from troubling life situations, like a gang member who was shot, lost his legs, and now is one of the top prosecution agents at UW-Madison.
"When I coached international, you meet players with no hands, no legs, and they still play. They shoot with no hands. They push on this tire with their arms. ... If that's not overcoming challenges, I don't know what is," Wilson said.
To spread the message about disabilities and overcoming challenges, Wilson has been trying to increase spectator attendance at the tournament. (The number of people who attend has fluctuated throughout the years.) This year, he brought in the Rim Rockers slam-dunking team and Bingo, the costumed acrobatic mascot, from the Milwaukee Bucks to a Saturday night game, which drew the tournament's largest attendance.
However, Wilson's effort extends beyond the annual tournament.
As Whitnall Middle School's gym teacher, Wilson integrates his coaching experiences and passion for wheelchair basketball into his classes.
While most schools have athletes with disabilities come in for demonstrations, Wilson created a whole unit for disabilities awareness – he does multiple communication sessions and actually brings in wheelchairs so the kids can experience first-hand what sports, and life, might be like for a person with disabilities.
Thanks to his various connections, Wilson brings in 32 wheelchairs for the unit. This equipment would easily cost over $100,000, he noted, which is why most other schools don't have the opportunity to teach about disabilities in such an experiential way.
In physical education class, Wilson teaches the students how to do things like maneuver and dribble in a wheelchair and about the rules of wheelchair basketball. The students also get to play a variety of tag games in the chairs, which Wilson says is the element they find the most fun.
Some students even take a wheelchair around to classes so that they can experience what life would be like if they were wheelchair-bound.
"I think that (learning) happens when we do our communication sessions with the kids, and ask them how they think it would be if they were in a chair everyday, if they would have to use this to get around. That's when they start gaining a perspective of it," Wilson said. "They get a perspective of what other people might go through that they don't."
Wilson also encourages his students to come to the tournament, where they get a chance to meet some of the players. This year, Wilson brought in extra wheelchairs so that some students could play basketball with the professional athletes, now that they know the rules of the game.
"It's a fantastic activity for the kids to learn about. It lets them see the bigger perspective of what other people go through that they don’t, and they they'll never have to. It helps them overcome challenges because they see others who have challenges to overcome that they'll never have to deal with," Wilson said.
Wilson's hope is that the tournament and his classes can help teach kids life lessons about overcoming obstacles that will stick with them beyond graduation.
"If I can teach the kids about doing what they want to do, then I can teach them something that will last their whole life," Wilson said. "If they can learn that and be persistent and do what they want to achieve, then the sky is the limit for that kid, or for any of us."