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Hoops gold

A wheelchair basketball player brings medal experience to a growing program

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  • Story by Chris Blose
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Sept. 4, 2007
John Gilbert scrimmages with Evan Moser

Wheelchair basketball player John Gilbert (with ball) scrimmages with Evan Moser and other teammates.

Like many other athletes, Tiger wheelchair basketball star John Gilbert started his career by watching. At the first game Gilbert and his mother went to, he sat there thinking, “Yeah, I’d really love to do this.” When a player slammed into the bleachers and had to get stitches, his mother wasn’t so sure.

Gilbert begged, though, and eventually started playing for a program in Nebraska. He would drive from his hometown of Fairfax, Mo., to Omaha to compete. Flash forward to 2007, and Gilbert is a star — not just for Mizzou, but also in international competition. As one of only 12 players picked for the U.S. men's team, Gilbert brought home a gold medal from the 2007 Para Pan-American Games in Brazil in August.

The team’s run included a routing of Brazil (on their home turf with extremely loud fans) and a nail-biter against Canada in the gold medal game. All the work and all the tension were worth it.

“There’s nothing else like hearing your national anthem in a different country,” Gilbert says.

Now Gilbert, a junior, wants to bring his momentum back to the University, where he has previously earned the titles of captain and "Most Outstanding Player." He has a new goal: “getting Team Mizzou here on the map.”

Gilbert and medal

Gilbert shows his gold medal from the Para Pan-American Games.

Growing pains pay off

When Coach Steve Paxton first helmed Mizzou’s wheelchair basketball program in 2004, he started small. He and his first two recruited players put in hours sweating and practicing in the gym, but they didn’t even have enough players to scrimmage, much less field a team.

Now, Mizzou has a 10-member squad and a world-class player in Gilbert.

“I don’t even really have words for it,” Paxton says of his team’s growth. “It was such a difficult struggle initially, just trying to get numbers, and to have the kind of depth and talent that we do have now.”

The program came about in part because of Chuck Graham, a state senator who helped secure funds to start the team. Graham is a wheelchair athlete himself, and he wanted players in Missouri to have a place to play in their home state. Now, the team operates as part of the MizzouRec program and trains in the first-rate Student Recreation Complex.

Foresight pays off. Gilbert likely would have been playing elsewhere if not for this program and these facilities. In fact, he was recruited by other programs.

“It was my dream to come to Missouri,” he says. “I wanted to go to a school that had basketball, and once I heard Missouri started a team, that’s when I decided.”

Read more in:  Sports

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012