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Living With A Disability In The Basketball World, and Assessing What Lies Ahead

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Having a disability creates many obstacles in life, but I've created a path for myself in basketball. I'm curious to see where that path continues to lead.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In the fall of 2014, I spent training camp observing the Santa Cruz Warriors. On my first day during their initial practice, head coach Casey Hill was performing something that seemed like a ritual as things got underway. He was jogging around, passing a ball around to everyone in the gym. Otherwise an unassociated bystander sitting by the bleachers, I didn't expect the ball to come in my direction. But suddenly, there it was --- a pass in my direction. Instinctively, I jabbed out with my right hand, but instead of catching it, I more or less pushed the ball away as it rolled in the other direction.

Coach Hill and I both laughed off the mishap, but it wasn't something I was proud of. In a gym full of some of the better athletes in the world, I feared that I ended up looking terribly uncoordinated, and that everyone took notice. Such insecurity was probably exaggerated in my own mind. Maybe no one noticed. When the same ritual took place during the next practice, Coach Hill jogged the ball over and handed it to me, essentially ensuring I wouldn't drop the pass. Neither of us said anything else of the botched catch from the day before, but I was sure his actions the next day took that into consideration. It may have been a nice gesture. It could have been a coincidence. But in my mind, it was proof someone noticed.

Most people may not think twice about botching one simple pass, but in situations like that, I feel like the attention is on me. I always have. That's because I've lived with "left hemiparesis" my entire life. A condition that weakens the left side of my body, it can result in an impaired ability to grasp objects, a lack of coordination and balance, difficulty walking, limited motor skills and range of motion in the fingers, and more. The condition is often associated with a stroke, but I was born this way.

There's a reason I jabbed at Coach Hill's pass with my right, or more dominant, hand. It's often the easiest way for me to catch it. Perhaps I should have put my hands out and awaited the pass to hit my chest, but I was caught off guard. I was hoping to get under the ball with my right hand, clasp it, and then pull it in to wrap both hands around it the best I could thereafter. Such an instinctive method has worked most often for years, but I couldn't get under it quite like I wanted to that time.

I can't tie my shoes. I more often than not walk with a limp. If I try and open a bottle of liquid, it usually spills out from lack of pressure due to a weak grip. I drive my car with adaptive equipment that allows me to keep control of the vehicle with one hand. All of my articles have been typed up using one hand. I've had co-workers at numerous jobs look at me differently (asking questions, probably judging me in the process) because I've failed to or had difficulty accomplishing what they would consider to be simple tasks. Forget about lifting heavy objects or cutting tough meat with a knife and fork. The list goes on.

But growing up, sports became a quick passion of mine, despite the limits or obstacles that stood in my way. I played about five years of Little League Baseball. Clearly, swinging the bat around at a quick enough speed to hit the ball was difficult. To order to play the field, I would have to catch the ball with the glove on my dominant hand, quickly remove the glove and place it under my other arm, then take the ball out and throw it in real time.

Basketball came with similar challenges, perhaps not as many. I shot the ball by starting off with both hands around it, but clearly pushed off with my more dominant hand. Protecting the ball from defenders was tough, and obviously dribbling with my left hand wasn't effective. I had a special interest in basketball from the start, and gained confidence by participating in Chris Mullin's basketball camp for multiple summers on end growing up. Chris and his brothers (Rod, Terence, and John) all took a special interest by encouraging, instructing, and helping me grow both on and off the court --- all while understanding my limitations very well. I obtained a number of awards and different honors with each passing summer session. While part of my younger self chalked it up to the Mullin's having pity on my situation, I realize now that perhaps they appreciated my effort and the pride I took in competing with others who didn't have such limitations. I made a name for myself because I proved my disability wouldn't stop me. I can only hope to continue doing that in life.

When I grew older than the designated maximum age to participate in camp, I was fortunate that the bond I created with the Mullin family resulted in them hiring me as a counselor for a few summers after that. While I'm never one to put a lid on what I can accomplish, this was exposure to the idea that, at some point, your own physical abilities fall short of the mark. Most people come to accept this --- the dream of becoming a professional athlete is clearly not realized by all who ponder it. But I was probably forced to come to that realization sooner than most. My interest to find another way to stay involved in the game was ever growing, and the Mullin family gave me my first taste of that.

Years later, being a media member continues to be another great way to accomplish such a goal. I enjoy the opportunity that comes with expressing thoughts, sharing information, sparking and engaging in different debates, etc. But that hasn't come without its own physical challenges, surprisingly enough. Media seating arrangements are quite inconvenient, with no consideration for those who have difficulty balancing or maneuvering into tight quarters. In addition to walking up bleachers (some without any type of bannister or rail for support), media rows are tricky to get into as well. As can be seen below, one has to climb inside the seat from the row above. Many obstacles stand in the way of someone who doesn't have the full balance of each leg upon climbing in, or the support of both hands to keep themselves steady by grabbing the table in front of them. This, of course, comes after squeezing through everyone to begin with, and often having the added weight of a book bag (with a laptop and things of the like) on their back. If there are people already sitting in the desired row, it's even more of a tight fit and/or maneuver. There's not enough room for someone to walk in horizontally.

During one game at the Barclays Center last year (in a similar media setup to the one above), I lost my footing after putting one leg in front of the seat, then attempting to sit and carry the second leg over. My already placed leg fell further between the rows, and I got stuck. Having to ask for assistance carefully back up while I was in this awkward position, from colleagues who are supposed to respect my work and treat me as an equal, was humiliating. There's a constant struggle (in this case, at games, but generally, in life) that I often hate to admit, because instinctively, one would think others could be insensitive to the issue.

As I walk with a limp, I know people observe and wonder why. The same uncertainty applies to when I'm constantly reaching for and/or lifting things predominantly with my right hand, often times ignoring the fact that I should be attempting actions with my left. My inability or difficulty completing the simplest of tasks has been discouraging over the yeas. As a result, my physical appearance is different. After all, muscles become weak when they aren't in use, and that's often been the case with my left arm. After two operations and some attempts with physical therapy growing up, I hope that my most recent (and current) effort with working out my left side's muscles will prove more productive due to some added maturity and awareness.

In continuing to write here at RidiculousUpside.com (and with my duties at TheKnicksBlog.com), I've continued to learn, grow, network, etc. My intellect and knowledge around the game has never been higher, because I'm continuously exposed to different things, additional prospectives, etc. I look at the game of basketball and the people around it much differently than I did when I started. I'm not only grateful, but very confident in that assertion.

With that, I wonder what may be next in my journey. Can I continue on and do different things, or will my physical limits stand in my way of contributing to an athletic field of work? Obviously there are plenty of roles that fall behind the scenes --- scouting, player personnel, public relations, etc. This could end up being with an agency, team, league, etc. But something I've learned by covering the D-League is that taking on such duties also comes with (something many consider to be an advantage) the opportunity to wear many hats with responsibility ranging both on and off the court. I love what I'm doing, but in the interest of keeping an open mind, I wonder what may be next and how I'll handle it. Being disabled in a field featuring people, who, for a lack of a better word, are instead so physically "able," can be an imposing thought.

Given my perseverance to write, stay involved in sports, and overcome daily obstacles in life, I'm not as worried that this will stand in the way of something I want. I've proven otherwise time and time again: it hasn't, and it won't. But the next step, in my mind for my own development, is to embrace my disability. I'm proud of what I've been able to do in life despite of it, but it's time I start proving that. There's no room or reason to hide it. If I carry myself with pride, respect (as opposed to judgement) from others will subsequently follow. One of the last things someone like me would want is for others to feel bad for them. If I don't, no one else should --- even if that's the natural emotion upon finding out.

There are people in this world who deal with more severe and/or simply different things than I do, regardless of how difficult what I'm faced with is for me personally. I don't take that for granted. I'm fortunate to function and/or accomplish what I do. But explaining all of this will prove to be a huge weight off my shoulders, because I've spent too much time concealing it or being concerned over the perception of others. But in addition, I hope it may also prove to inspire others -- not only those who are faced with similar obstacles in life, but those who struggle to find the motivation or feel shameful because of them. No one should have to, regardless of what they may deal with. But it takes courage.

In order to get noticed in life, you have to stand out. But ironically enough, that's the last thing someone with a disability wants, because it could mean more attention aimed towards what makes them different. But why must that come with a negative connotation? It doesn't. I'm confident in what I can do. I've spent much of my life wishing to be the same as everyone else, without accepting the special nature of what makes me different. If I can begin to do that even more, I'm confident positive things will follow.