Autum Battershell

Canaan Shaffer, left, and Autumn Battershell of Monticello, practice dribbling during practice for a new start-up wheelchair basketball team at Champaign-Urbana Special Rec in Champaign on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

CHAMPAIGN — University of Illinois sophomore wheelchair basketball player Morgan McCammon spent practice day one day lasat month passing and riding along with 14-year-old Autumn Battershell, from Monticello.

Autumn is the only kid in her grade level and one of a few in her whole school who uses a wheelchair day-to-day, said her stepdad, Matt Grob. Autumn rarely resisted a smile while she dribbled in front of her chair or practiced shooting form against a wall of the practice facility.

“Just look at her face, she loves it,” Grob said. “It’ll take a long time for her to grasp the game itself. But playing and doing it is going to engage her.

“Two weeks ago, she could barely dribble two or three times, but now she’s doing it looking at me.”

McCammon has volunteered as the team’s assistant coach for two weeks now. An elementary education major, she enthusiastically took up Eaton’s offer to help with the team.

“I was a kid who really needed to be good at something for it to be fun. That’s not the case for these kids,” she said. “Whenever they’re passing the ball, whether they’re doing a good pass or not, I love to see the joy they get purely out of playing.”

The sport isn’t restricted to players with a visible lower extremity disability. McCammon has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome; her joints aren’t stable enough to safely play stand-up basketball. She started playing wheelchair basketball at 16, but doesn’t use a chair to get around outside of the sport.

“Whenever I tell people that I play wheelchair basketball, they’re looking me up and down,” she said. “It’s a very wide misunderstanding, and it has to do with misconstruction of disability and what disabilities look like.”

Practices may be fundamentals-focused, but the team breaks out with a few non-basketball games, like races, “Sharks and Minnows” or what team member Canaan Shaffer dubbed “Zombie Tag” (basically tag, but whoever’s “it” is a zombie.)

“The biggest thing is making it fun,” McCammon said. “Loving something is going to get you so much farther than just wanting to succeed at it, where they’re taking out their basketball chairs as much as possible and practicing in their driveways.”

The task for 7-year-old Canaan Shaffer: follow up two big pushes of his wheelchair with a bounce of the ball.

The maneuver is the dribbling technique for the sport of wheelchair basketball. After a few errant attempts, the ball bouncing just out of reach or popping off his chair, Canaan suddenly got the hang of it, rattling off three straight dribbles as he glided down midcourt of the Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation Center.

Coach Kaitlyn Eaton congratulated him with a series of high-fives for his persistence. In three weeks of practice, Canaan said he’s become “9,000 percent better.” His new basketball hobby is “1 million percent fun.”

A new youth sports team is taking shape in town. On Tuesday evenings, a handful of East Central Illinois kids — from Monticello, Philo, Mahomet and Champaign at the moment — come to the C-U Special Rec Center to practice the fundamentals of wheelchair basketball.

There are six such teams officially recognized by the Illinois High School Association, the closest being the Peoria Wildcats. Champaign practices are led by bronze medal Paralympian Eaton, currently a University of Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball coach.

“Coaching seven-year-olds is a new experience for me, so I think we’re all kind of learning together,” Eaton said. “We’re flying through different skills, and it’s only been three weeks.”

The co-founder and supervisor of the program is Alyssa Anderson, director of Larkin’s Place at the Stephens Family YMCA. Before joining the Y, Anderson taught special education for 10 years in Unit 4 schools.

In 2020, she discovered her soon-to-be-born daughter would live with spina bifida, where her lower spine wouldn’t fully form. Millie, now 2 years old, is paralyzed from the waist down and uses braces and a mobility device to get around, Anderson said.

“I left education to take this job at the Y because I wanted to get more into community-wide disability work, advocacy and programming,” Anderson said. “I wanted to bring competitive sports programming here so that when Millie is old enough, she has opportunities and options.”

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‘This sport is for you’

Years ago, the C-U Special Rec Center attempted to form a local youth wheelchair basketball team with the help of the Peoria Wildcats, Anderson said, but like so many other young programs, the pandemic derailed its efforts.

Securing a $1,000 grant from the Kendall Gretsch Fund for Adaptive Athletes, administered by the Illinois Spina Bifida Association, has allowed the team to pay its coaches, rent out the rec center’s basketball chairs and court space, and lessen fees, down to $70 for YMCA members and $85 for non-members.

Parent Meredith Barnes recruited Eaton to coach the team. (Barnes’ daughter, Makenna, is on it as well.)

“For them to realize, we’re not accommodating a sport, this sport is for you, you are the exact people we want here to play — it’s so important and validating for the disability community,” Anderson said.

One month in, practices revolve around the basics of dribbling and passing, and that likely won’t change for a while, Eaton said. But they’re vying for more kids to join, so the team can reach the roster size for competition and enrich its chances for camaraderie.

“If you know someone who has a physical disability, get them here,” Eaton said. “Eventually, these kids are going to get to compete and get the mindset of ‘we want to win,’ but I think the coolest thing about this sport in general is they’re able to hang out with other kids with disabilities and see people that look like them.”

The Paralympian coach

Sport wasn’t always the endgame for Coach Eaton. Now 28, she was born with sacral agenesis; her lower spine didn’t form completely.

Growing up in Houston, her mother Jill enrolled her in all sorts of adaptive sports camps for children with disabilities. But the pastimes never seemed to draw her in until high school, when a 16-year-old Eaton was struggling to find an intriguing elective.

With no adaptive sports teams at her high school, Eaton Googled teams and found the TIRR Memorial Hermann’s Junior Hotwheels basketball squad, connected to the city’s major rehab hospital.

Eaton showed up to practice unannounced and tried her best.

“I was not good at all when I showed up,” Eaton said. “I could hardly pass the ball, couldn’t hit the rim, nothing was going right.”

The reason she stuck with it was her coach, Genny Gomez.

“She saw something in me day one or day two of my practices, and said ‘we are going to make something out of you,’” she said.

After a collegiate career at the University of Illinois, and a third-place finish in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, wheelchair basketball is part of her being.

What she remembers from those early days, and what Eaton hopes to bring to youthful Champaign practices, is an atmosphere of constant encouragement.

“Even if they don’t get it the second, third or fourth time, we’re going to keep trying,” she said.