Wheelchair basketball teams take the floor at The Palace

Detroit’s “Die Hard” For Hoops

Weusi Olusola was 16 years old when a bullet shattered his spinal cord - and along with it, his dreams of playing in the NBA. The former high school All-America from Detroit Murray-Wright has been in a wheelchair since 1986.

That bullet may have ended his NBA dreams, but it hasn’t stopped Olusola from playing at the biggest sporting venues in Michigan, including Cobo Arena, University of Detroit’s Calihan Hall, Michigan State’s Breslin Center, and, for the third time this past Saturday, The Palace of Auburn Hills.

And he did it all from his wheelchair.

Olusola is captain of the Detroit Die Hard wheelchair basketball team, which took the floor during halftime of the Detroit Shock-Indiana Fever game to play the Fort Wayne Bandits (who eventually won). Both teams are members of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Their exhibition was to help the Die Hard, which is compiled primarily of Detroit gunshot victims like Olusola, gain exposure for their sixth annual Celebrity Wheelchair Basketball Game. Olusola said Detroit Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter and the Shock’s Swin Cash are tentatively scheduled to participate in the event, which will be held Sept. 18 at Calihan Hall.

“It’s a fun game and it’s a charity game,” Olusola said. “The proceeds go to the SportsAbility program as well as our basketball team. It’s become an annual part of the city. Everyone asks me through the year when our wheelchair game is going to be. We also have WJLB FM 98 as an annual partner as well. Not only to get the word out about us but for wheelchair basketball.”

The SportsAbility program is sponsored by the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan and provides support and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities throughout the Detroit area. It was through the SportsAbility program that the Die Hard teammates found each other. Olusola is also president of the RIM’s Pioneers for Peace initiative, which began 10 years ago to give victims of gun violence an opportunity to teach youth about resolving conflicts without violence. According to a 2005 news release on the RIM Web site, the Pioneers reached more than 25,000 students in 2004.

“One of the things we do is a life-skills presentation and a wheelchair basketball exhibition,” he said. “We go to elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. We bring chairs so the kids can come out and play in the chairs with us. Then we put them all on the bleachers and talk about life.”

Trying to play basketball from a wheelchair can be a daunting task for schoolchildren. It certainly was for Olusola. “The biggest challenge for me was learning how to maneuver the chair. As they say, I had to become one with the chair,” he said with a smile. “So it took me awhile to master the maneuverability and becoming agile and actually cater my game from stand-up ball to being able to do the same things in a wheelchair.”

When the team is not speaking with groups of school kids, they’re training for the big day, Sept. 18, at the Joseph Walker Williams Center in Detroit. And they’re training hard. Olusola’s passionate plea for nonviolence doesn’t mean his team is soft on the court. He still plays the same hard-nosed, aggressive Detroit basketball he always did.

“I would say wheelchair ball is the most physical now,” said Olusola, comparing it to the professional brand he once seemed so destined for. “They don’t let you do anything in the NBA anymore.”

RIM’s Sixth Annual Celebrity Wheelchair Basketball Game: Sept. 18, 2007. University of Detroit Mercy, Calihan Hall. Detroit Sports Legends (players from the Red Wings, Lions, Pistons and Tigers) vs. Detroit Motor Mouths (favorite television and radio personalities). Tickets: $8 for adults, $5 children. VIP tickets available for $100 include private reception with celebrity players. Tickets available at Ticketmaster (248) 645-6666. VIP tickets available at (313) 745-9817. Information from www.disabilitiestoday.com.