by David Davis |
August 23, 2021
The color photograph that appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine on March 22, 1948, shows a solitary wheelchair athlete, his right arm cocked as if he’s about to pass the basketball he’s palming to a distant teammate.
Today, nearly 75 years later, this unassuming tableau—which would have been a new, even puzzling image for readers at the time—resonates like a thunderous slam-dunk.
To understand the significance of this long-forgotten image, it’s important to recall that after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in the early 1930s, he used a small wheelchair to get around his office and home. But the leader of the free world, who had contracted polio as a young man, took great pains to conceal the fact that he couldn’t walk unaided. He refused to be photographed or filmed while in a wheelchair so as to “quiet the feelings of revulsion, pity, and embarrassment that his body provoked in others,” as his biographer James Tobin wrote in The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency.
FDR’s stance echoed the tenor of the times. People with disabilities were stigmatized and usually kept hidden from view. Many American cities passed so-called “ugly laws,” including Chicago, which banned people who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.” (This shameful law was not repealed until 1974.)
People with severe spinal-cord injuries, known as paraplegics, were rarely seen in public. Paralyzed veterans who fought in World War I could expect to live for approximately 18 months after their injury. But World War II proved to be a game-changer in preserving the lives of paraplegics. Medics deployed new-fangled sulfa drugs on battlefield wounds, and surgeons expeditiously treated the injured servicemen. Military aircraft transported them back to U.S. hospitals much faster than ocean liners had, and the advent of penicillin effectively staunched infections.
An estimated 2,500 paralyzed veterans returned home from the Pacific and European theaters. Doctors believed that, despite frequent aftercare complications, these veterans would probably experience a lengthy lifespan, perhaps even approaching their non-disabled counterparts.
That was the positive news. The downside was, they were re-entering a barrier-plagued society that was unprepared for them. There were no handicap parking spaces or curb cutouts at street corners; ramps leading to the entrances of public buildings were unheard of.
Unanswerable questions buzzed in their brains. Would they ever be able to walk unaided again? What employer would want to hire them? And, was it physically possible to have sex and father children?
To aid their rehabilitation, the Veterans Administration opened separate paraplegia wards in hospitals around the country, so that the paraplegics could recover a sense of equilibrium, physically and mentally. But even as these veterans pursued higher education, job training, and physical rehab, a key element was missing.
Many of these young men had grown up playing sports, whether for their school teams or in the service. They missed the special camaraderie of competition, not to mention the strenuous workout. VA staff, most of whom were non-disabled, wondered how they could create enjoyable and meaningful recreation options for wheelchair users.
The wheelchairs themselves were part of the problem. To that point in time, “wheelchair design” was an oxymoron. Wheelchairs were wooden behemoths that weighed over 100 pounds and resembled La-Z-Boys on wheels; they were bulky sitting chairs for permanent immobility. The most common catchphrases used to describe paraplegics emphasized their apparent helplessness: they were said to be “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound.”
Just before the war, an engineer named Herbert Everest, who had been paralyzed in a mining accident, brought wheelchairs out of the dark ages. He teamed with co-designer Harry Jennings, inside the latter’s garage in Santa Monica, to fashion a lightweight, foldable wheelchair made of chromium-plated steel tubing. They shifted the two large wheels to the rear so that users could easily and comfortably propel the chair, and they placed two small casters in the front to provide stability and pivoting capability. A backing and seat crafted from synthetic leather allowed the 24-inch-wide chairs to be folded like an accordion to a width of 10 inches. Each chair weighed about 50 pounds.
Their invention changed lives immediately. With some practice, paralyzed vets could wheel their E&Js from the hospital ward to their cars, open the doors, hoist themselves into the front seats, fold up their chairs and stash them behind the seat, and drive off using adaptive, hand-controlled equipment. They now had mobility—and the ability to look for work, live independently outside the hospital, and as it turned out, play competitive sports.
“Call it the most unusual basketball game ever played—or the first time in the United States that paraplegics have entered competitive sports in wheelchairs—or simply say it was an action-packed, fast-moving and exciting contest.”
In early 1946, at the Birmingham VA hospital in Van Nuys, California, assistant athletic director Bob Rynearson noticed how the paralyzed veterans liked to roll their chairs onto the gym floor and take turns awkwardly lofting a leather basketball toward the net. What most resonated with Rynearson were the gleeful, totally unselfconscious expressions on the men’s faces as they traded good-natured jibes and hoots.
A thought struck Rynearson: why not use basketball, that most indigenous of American sports, to help the veterans with their rehabilitation?
At first blush, wheelchairs and basketball seemed a particularly odd combination. Height is important in hoops, and no one seated in a wheelchair can boast about that. Basketball also demands constant motion—running, dribbling, rebounding, passing—and it was difficult to imagine how paraplegics could simultaneously control the trajectories of their chairs, avoid collisions with nine other players, and maintain their balance. Oh, and somehow muscle the ball up to the rim and score, too.
But Rynearson noticed that the smooth, flat surface of the basketball court was far superior for rolling wheels than grassy fields, and that the court was large enough to accommodate 10 athletes. Basketball can also be played year-round, and the upper-body contortions required for passing, rebounding, and shooting the ball produce a sweat-filled workout in the chest, arms, neck, shoulder, and core muscles, precisely those areas of the body that paraplegics most need to strengthen.
Rynearson configured a set of 10 rules that closely mimicked two-legged basketball. His most perceptive insight was that the wheelchair, which he called the “means of ambulation,” should be considered the natural and integral extension of the player’s body. Incidental contact between opponents’ chairs was tolerated, but deliberately ramming an opponent’s chair resulted in a personal foul. The veterans themselves persuaded him not to lower the rims from their standard height and not to shorten the distance from the free-throw line.
Above all else, Rynearson made sure that the experience was gratifying for the veterans. “It was just fun getting out there to play basketball,” recalled Birmingham patient Ed Santillanes, who was injured near the Rhine River with the 65th Infantry Division when the jeep he was driving on patrol hit a roadside mine. “The hardest thing was trying to dribble while you’re in a wheelchair. You didn’t just put the ball in your lap and take off like a bat out of hell.”
On November 25, 1946, Rynearson arranged for the paralyzed veterans to play their first game. Their opponent? A squad of able-bodied doctors from the hospital who used wheelchairs for the occasion. The veterans took advantage of their hard-won experience with their E&Js to easily defeat the doctors, 16-6.
“Call it the most unusual basketball game ever played—or the first time in the United States that paraplegics have entered competitive sports in wheelchairs—or simply say it was an action-packed, fast-moving and exciting contest,” the facility’s in-house newsletter breathlessly reported. Coverage of the new sport elsewhere followed. The stories, though typically upbeat and encouraging, oftentimes brimmed with ignorance and condescension, with headlines like “Legless Five Wins Game” and “Crippled Vets Love Sports.”
Nevertheless, like a well-orchestrated fast break, wheelchair basketball quickly spread to paraplegia wards around the country.
In early 1948, Rynearson’s Birmingham squad combined sports highlights and advocacy for disability rights in one epic road trip. They scheduled a slate of wheelchair basketball games in eight cities and, before thousands of disbelieving spectators in some of the nation’s largest sports arenas, faced off against other paralyzed veterans as well as able-bodied teams in borrowed wheelchairs.
When they played the McGuire VA hospital team in Richmond, Virginia, they detoured to Washington, D.C., and rolled their E&Js through the marbled hallways of the Capitol. Their goal: to lobby Congress for legislation that would enable paralyzed veterans to purchase wheelchair-accessible homes, equipped with widened doorways, ramps instead of stairs, and bathrooms and fixtures to accommodate their disability. (President Harry Truman signed Public Law 702 on June 19, 1948.)
Their message to anyone who would listen was consistent and succinct. They wanted no sympathy or special treatment. They simply wanted the opportunity to take their place in society. “With continued evidence of what a disabled man can accomplish, not only will many be given renewed hope and confidence, but the public, business and industry will be made to realize that the disabled—with a little help and understanding—can be useful, valuable and self-sustaining citizens,” said Fred Smead, an early leader of the nonprofit advocacy group Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).
On March 10, 1948, days after the Birmingham team concluded their barnstorming trip, paralyzed veterans from Cushing and Halloran VA hospitals (in Massachusetts and Staten Island, respectively) wheeled their E&Js onto the court of Madison Square Garden.
Hyped by nightlife columnist (and soon-to-be TV personality) Ed Sullivan, some 15,561 spectators watched as the players warmed up.
The wary crowd was alarmed at first as the veterans wheeled up and down the court and, occasionally, fell from their chairs after mid-court collisions. But their unease quickly turned to relief and then amazement as the men hoisted themselves back into their chairs and returned to the fray with a mighty yell. The fans cheered on both teams, but were thrilled to see the local lads from Halloran cruise to an entertaining 20-11 victory over Cushing.
The game’s leading scorer was Jack Gerhardt with eight points. A paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, Gerhardt was wounded in France in 1944. He rehabbed at Halloran hospital and soon established himself as one of the nation’s top wheelchair basketball players. “He can go like hell in that chair,” said one of Gerhardt’s teammates.
A few days after the game at Madison Square Garden, Gerhardt appeared on the cover of Newsweek. Striking an athletic pose in his polished, state-of-the-art E&J chair, he also subtly boosted the fortunes of his compatriots; the three letters emblazoned on his navy-and-white singlet stand for the nonprofit advocacy group Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).
The cover image, far from being innocuous, told the story of a group of men who took a second chance at life and upended the stereotype of disabled people as weak and powerless.
Later that year, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association was formed, complete with an annual tournament, and the pool of players soon expanded to include post-polios and amputees (and, later, women and youth with disabilities). Also in 1948, in England, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann unveiled the first edition of the event that would become the Paralympics.
These paralyzed World War II veterans did not just help reduce the stigma of disability; they were among the first people to be applauded for their condition, the first to be considered as something other than freaks or damaged goods. If paraplegics could play basketball—basketball!—they could, if given the tools and the opportunity, do anything and everything non-disabled veterans could do: drive a car, hold down a job, buy a home, get married, and raise children.
By firing the opening salvo in what has become a protracted fight for disability rights for U.S. citizens, the paralyzed veterans championed the principles that continue to resonate today within the disability community: accessibility, inclusion, acceptance, and respect.
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