Sunday, December 18, 2011

November 2011 Part 4, Wheelchair Basketball

Wheelchair Basketball-Wheelchair Athletes Worldwide (WAW)
I arrived back in Delhi on Sunday the 20th and on Wednesday November 23, the wheelchair basketball event that I had been thinking about and planning for more than a year was to come to fruition. I had so much wanted this to happen in order to bring my love of basketball together with my passion for my job.

I wasn’t sure how it would work as I hadn’t really been able to locate many wheelchair basketball athletes but due to persistence, lots of e-mails, throughout the world to various wheelchair athletes groups and Poonam hooking me up with an event that was supposed to happen in Mumbai, I was able to work with a group called Wheelchair Athletes Worldwide based in San Diego.

Wheelchair Athletes Worldwide is a fairly new NGO consisting of some renowned wheelchair American athletes. An NGO in Mumbai was supposed to hold an event with WAW but it just wasn’t coming together.

When I visited the States in February 2011 I was able , accompanied by my son Daniel, to visit Dan Altan of WAW in San Diego. We met up at a coffee shop and Dan talked to me about WAW, showed me a sports wheelchair and we were on our way. (In January I had also met up with Vicki Sigworth and her husband in Dehli. Vicki and her son Jon have an NGO, ESCIP, helping people with spinal cord injury as Jon had suffered such when he was in India when he was 18. They were now putting this all to good use with motivating and getting more wheelchair sports in India. Vicki was also tied in with Dan. As the saying goes small world).

When I got back to India in March, I knew that I wanted the wheelchair basketball to happen during November, i.e. during Badhte Kadam to showcase the abilities of persons with disability. WAW was operating on a shoe string, and this was to be their first attempt at donating sports wheelchairs and doing clinics for providing instruction for wheelchair athletics.

The next task for me was to find NGOs with interest in and sports wheelchair programmes. It just so happened that an inclusionary school in Delhi, Amar Jyoti fit the bill. When I finally got around to visiting them I saw children in regular wheelchairs trying to play basketball with able bodied children. Needless to say the wheelchairs lacked mobility. Uma Thuli the Founder and Secretary of Amar Jyoti was all behind this and very excited about the prospect.

We also wanted to find another NGO to donate some of the wheelchairs and through a number of trials and tribulations, through Vicki, found the Ability People (TAP) in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh.

I was hoping to have the wheelchair basketball clinic and donation as part of a larger integrated sports day that Amar Jyoti was planning but due to schedules and ultimately our good fortune, Pete, Greg and Shelley couldn’t come to India until the following week.

Planning and working with skype is a real life saver when one is trying to do an international event. There were numerous ups and downs but finally it was all a go as Pete, Greg and Shelley made their reservations. I was so sorry that Dan Altan couldn’t come but he had injured himself and needed to have an operation. I tried to convince him to come to India for the operation, but the comforts of home were something that couldn’t be overcome.

Pete was the first to arrive on Wednesday night. Not known to me, he had changed flights and actually arrived early. He called me from the airport indicating that there were some issues with getting the 12 wheelchairs out of customs without paying taxes. Fortunately for all of us a Singaporean company was helping to build capacity for the baggage group at IGI airport and with their help and a letter from National Trust, we were able to get the chairs out of customs. There were a few tense moments, but it all ended well.

I was so happy to finally meet Pete, an accomplished athlete in his own right and the coach of the #3 in the US women’s wheelchair basketball team at University of Arizona. Pete is a jovial guy not much taller than me who has had a physical disability his entire life. He is able to walk on his own but does have to rely on crutches.

The NGO AADI, through their Director Syamala and her wonderful staff had agreed to do all transportation and stay arrangement in Delhi. We needed them and they came through perfectly. AADI has large buses and the staff is all about customer service. The rooms were great and there was no charge. I feel very blessed to have friends like the staff at AADI! As Syamalaji told me, “we have to be willing to help each other, those in the disability movement, out”.

The bus was at the airport, we loaded everything up and the adventure had started. When Pete and I arrived at AADI, their annual meeting had just ended and there was a veritable feast, in which Pete and I partook. The AADI staff with the usual Indian greeting had huge smiles on their faces! Pete, although very tired was so very happy. Although I had indicated to Pete that he should rest on Thursday we made arrangements, through AADI, for him to go to Agra!

After leaving Pete around 9 PM, I made my way to the airport on the express line for the second time that night, in order to pick up Shelley and Greg who were coming in around 2 AM on Thursday. No hitches and the pre-paid cab driver took us to AADI in about 20 minutes at that time of the morning. After I got Shelley and Greg situated and they greeted Pete, I left for my home with the same cab driver. Shelley and Greg, although without much sleep had decided to accompany Pete to Agra. Although I had said rest, these are the kind of people that I really love, willing to take advantage of opportunities!

I slept a good part of the day on Thursday, preparing for the first clinic on Friday morning at Amar Jyoti. Previously during the week, Uma Thuli had told me that there was a little bit of a hitch as a television production company was also going to be filming at the school. I was a bit upset as I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the wheelchair basketball given that WAW had flown to India and the planning that went into the event. Uma was patient with me and kept saying, although I can’t tell you who will be there, you will really appreciate this. Finally I just let it go and knew that somehow everything would work itself out.

On Friday morning I came by metro, knowing that Amar Jyoti would bring Pete and Greg, Shelley and the wheelchairs. When I arrived at Amar Jyoti I walked in and saw the children all ready to go and an assembly. At the head of the assembly was Aamir Khan! I was blown away especially since I had written a proposal asking him to be the BK ambassador. I then saw the AADI bus and all was well.

After the assembly I immediately started talking to Mr. Khan, gave him my card, etc. I kept telling Pete, Greg and Shelley how big of a star Khan is. I can’t at this point say much about what Mr. Khan was doing, but it was an incredible experience. This will come in a later blog, along with photos and video.

Pete, Shelley and Greg got right to it and the coaches and Amar Jyoti children were able to get some good training. Shelley did most of the camera work and the children just loved her. She is a physical therapist, a young beautiful woman, very quiet and quite kind. Shelley seems very supportive of the work that her husband Greg, a very accomplished athlete is doing. It was great for me to see a very complementary couple.

Amidst the craziness that a big star brings to any occasion the staff at Amar Jyoti did a great job of keeping things separate so that WAW could do their work. (Pete, Greg, Shelley and I were able to eat lunch with Mr. Khan). The children were so happy to get the sports wheelchairs as they are much mobile and easier to use. Pete and Greg, did a great job, along with Raj, a coach, who helped to translate. I was also able to participate through coaching some of the able bodied children and of course providing general encouragement.

The first day complete, Pete, Greg, Shelley and I went back to AADI where we rested a bit and then went out to Delhi Haat. The staff at AADI let us use their computers to check e-mail, again showing how much “service” is part of their daily work. We took the metro as I was curious to see how accessible this service truly was. As it turned out the metro was great and Delhi Haat was the same, both very accessible without any hitches, well maybe the foot high sidewalks, but we did find a curb cut. We had a wonderful dinner of south Indian and they all did some shopping.

I accompanied them back to AADI and then proceeded to home and preparation for Day 2. On Wednesday of that week, my friend Troy Justice of the NBA had said that he would reintroduce me to Kenny Natt, coach of the Indian Men’s National Basketball team and give him a personal invitation to wheelchair basketball. I thought why not. Kenny was very gracious and said that he would try to come. Kenny’s assistant Karan called me to say that Kenny was interested if it could fit into his schedule.

Sure enough Kenny did want to come and on Saturday morning, thanks to Karan, Kenny was there. Kenny is a big man, a former professional player and coach in the US. I had previously met him at some Asian preliminary qualifying games. He is very affable, but serious about the work that he is doing in India. I was so happy to see him and he was so happy to participate with the children. We put Kenny in a wheelchair and he seemed to really love it as indicated by the huge grin on his face. . Kenny was also very happy to meet Uma Thuli and he ended up staying for about 1.5 hours. My good friend Shekhar also came on Saturday which made things even more special. We got Shekhar into a wheelchair and I think that he came away with a greater appreciation for Persons with Disability. For me, this was all a dream come true, but as I’ve come to find out anything is possible in my India.

After Kenny and Karan left Greg, Pete and Shelley continued to do their clinics, along with the Indian coaches who came to learn more about wheelchair sports. Around 11 AM a formal presentation was made for donating the wheelchairs. It was a very happy moment. After this, CNN-IBN, thanks to the work of Epistle Solutions and my friends, Aditya, Jasdeep and Sumita, appeared to do a segment on wheelchair basketball. This was a highlight for me as World Disability Day was the following Saturday, Badhte Kadam was on-going and we were, thanks to the magic of television, spreading awareness about Persons with Disability and their capabilities. I got to be in my very first television interview in India but the highlights were on Greg and the children!

At around 12:30 Pete and I and the AADI bus were loaded for taking Pete to the airport to go to Vizag. I said my goodbyes to Pete and Shelley with the hope that I would see them next time I was in the States. It sounds as if they have a great house in Tucson with a hot tub, so I may need to make my way there.

Pete had a 2:30 flight and the challenge was to ensure that we were able to get the 6 wheelchairs to be donated to TAP, also on the flight. Although through Dilip Patro and the Ability People we had made prior arrangement on Spice Jet, there was still some anticipation on my part. We finally made it through the Delhi traffic to the terminal 3 which happened to be the wrong place. We very quickly shifted to the domestic terminal where lo and behold everything worked out. Pete got some special attention and he and the wheelchairs were shepherded onto the plane.

I went home for a bit of rest as thanks to National Trust, I was going to Vizag early Sunday morning. I was picked up without a hitch and taken right to the stadium where Pete was waiting. It was a stadium with an old wooden floor, very large. I wondered if we were going to fill this up and as it turned out we didn’t, but the children participating had a lot of fun. There was also a lot of press, both print and television. This was due to Dilip Patro, the founder of the Ability People.

Dilip had a spinal cord injury, due to a car accident, in the midst of his life and very promising career. Although Dilip is confined to a wheelchair he is a very capable man and is doing a lot. Besides continuing his work as a software engineer he is also trying to build the Ability People. Recently TAP became registered with National Trust.

The clinic not only consisted of wheelchair basketball, but Pete also introduced rugby. The audience consisted mainly of a number of hearing impaired children and as with the able bodied children in Amar Jyoti, we were able to get a number of them to sit in wheelchairs to experience what it was like. Although somewhat unorganized, Pete was able to do a lot with the children which I know that they appreciated.

Pete was a joy to watch as he is only about ability. I could tell that at one time he was quite a baller and he still has a nice outside touch. Pete has his own business in Tucson, but is also involved with innumerable other activities, involving Persons with Disability. Like Greg, Pete has not let his supposed disability stop him to lead a full rights based life, something which we are trying to get more people to understand with the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD). Both Greg and Pete were wonderful role models and this was another thing that I was hoping to showcase.

After the clinic on Sunday I was too tired to leave my room, although Pete went out with Dilip and others that evening. (There was an Aamir Khan movie on television that evening and I couldn’t imagine this guy that I had met on Friday as a killer). On Monday morning I said good-bye to Pete and spent the day with Dilip and a Dr. Kiran who performs a number of operations for Person with Disability living in the villages surrounding Vizag. I went to Dilip’s home for dinner and met his family and saw a bit about the daily struggles that he faces as a permanent wheelchair user.

All in all the whirlwind three day basketball tour surpassed what I had thought. I had gotten to a point where I just wanted it to happen as the planning had seemed interminable. I’m so happy to have participated and helped to coordinate and it makes me want to do more of these types of activities no matter where I am in the world. Of course it takes a team, WAW, TAP, Amar Jyoti, AADI, NT. The team came through with lots of smiles and a willingness to make it all happen. I really can’t compliment everyone enough on their can-do attitudes. Even with technology, at times, this was so cumbersome and I thought forget it. But mostly we all came together to make the donation of 12 sports wheelchairs and three incredible days of clinics a reality.

I’ve brought people together which is something that I enjoy doing every day of my life. After all it is about how we network and weave our integrated webs. In every case we have to keep increasing the size of our webs and collaborate to make the world a much better place. It is through joint understanding and experience that we will continue to do this. I feel as if this did happen a bit by bringing the “Americans” to India to help develop more friendships.

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