Less than a hundred years ago, wheelchairs were big clunky wooden chairs that couldn’t even fit through most doorways.  But in the 1930s, a pair of engineers dreamed up a  new kind of wheelchair that would change the lives of wheelchair-users dramatically. In fact, some of them invented a new sport that would become a worldwide sensation: wheelchair basketball. Join Joy and co-host Otis as they explore the history of this amazing sport and check out Otis’ wheelchair basketball practice! Plus, an all new First Things First!

If you want to read more about the history of wheelchair basketball, check out this article by David Davis. Davis also wrote a book called Wheels of Courage that explores how World War II veterans invented wheelchair sports.

Watch wheelchair basketball in action at the Paralympics:

Audio Transcript

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JOY DOLO: Welcome to the Forever Ago Trophy Room.

OTIS: Wow, there are so many trophies. Oh, look at this one. The Thesaurus Award for Most Adjectives in a Sentence.

JOY DOLO: I savor this pulchritudinous, astonishing, and prodigious recognition.

OTIS: Ooh, and there's the second-place trophy for Most Gracious Loser.

JOY DOLO: You know, it's an honor just to lose. And don't miss this one. Best Podcast Host That Breaks into Song at the Drop of a Hat.

OTIS: So impressive.

JOY DOLO: Well, Otis, when you're the host of an award-winning history podcast, the trophies just start piling up. Now this wall is full of trophies given to me by others. And over here is the wall of trophies I've given to myself. And this wall is trophies that I'm waiting to give to other people.

OTIS: Ooh, have you been waiting to give any of these trophies to me?

JOY DOLO: Time will tell, Otis. Time will tell.

OTIS: Well, it just so happens that I also love giving and receiving trophies, medals, certificates, plaques, commemorative plates, dishwasher-safe travel coffee mugs, lapel pins, ribbons, glass paperweights, and high-fives.

JOY DOLO: Well, in that case, this trophy is for you.


OTIS: The Accolade Enthusiast Award for Most Trophies? Thank you, Joy.

JOY DOLO: You're listening to Forever Ago where we explore the before. I'm your host, Joy Dolo, and my co-host today is Otis from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hi, Otis.

OTIS: Hi, Joy.

JOY DOLO: So today we're talking about a sport that's near and dear to your heart, wheelchair basketball. So how would you describe wheelchair basketball to someone who's never seen it before?

OTIS: Yeah, it's very similar to standing basketball. More contact and a lot of tipping.

JOY DOLO: For some of us that don't know how to play basketball-- I'm not naming names-- Joy Dolo-- what are some of the rules that are similar from wheelchair basketball to standing basketball?

OTIS: You cannot travel. So you have to take three pushes in your chair. And then you have to dribble. And then there are charges, which is if a person is still in their chair and you ran into them with the front of your chair, then that is called a charge, and the ball goes to the other team.

JOY DOLO: How fast would you say you go in one of those bad boys?

OTIS: I think top speed, like maybe 20 miles per hour?

JOY DOLO: Whoo! That's almost cheetah level. No, it's not. But it's-- but it's still very fast. Have you collided with people before?

OTIS: Oh yeah.

JOY DOLO: Oh yeah. Does it hurt?

OTIS: I mean, it hurts when you-- like your first collision, it'll hurt pretty bad, but you'll get used to it after a bunch of collisions.

JOY DOLO: So after practice, are you just, like, covered in bruises and stuff?

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah. I get that. How long have you been playing?

OTIS: I've been playing for nine years now. I tried out and made the varsity team this year as a seventh grader.

JOY DOLO: Whoo! What position do you play?

OTIS: I play guard. So there are only guards and posts in wheelchair basketball, which, in standing basketball, there are point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center.

JOY DOLO: So what does a guard do, exactly?

OTIS: It's like the facilitator out on the court. It controls a lot of the court-- like, passes the ball to other people. Can score, too. Yeah, it's a very important position to the team.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, especially if you've got to score.

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: That's the point of basketball, is to get the points, you know?

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: And I have to ask, have you received any trophies or ribbons or medals?

OTIS: I have received some honors. This season I was named my preps team's MVP. I also earned All-Tournament Prep Team twice. That's an honor given at the conclusion of a tournament to the player to have performed the best during the tournament.

JOY DOLO: So you did the best and you got a trophy because you were the best?

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Oh, how does it feel to be the best, Otis?

OTIS: I mean, it's pretty awesome, yeah.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] Do you just go around like brushing your shoulders off everywhere you go?

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah. Well, well done. Here is another trophy to add to your collection.


OTIS: Oh, wow, Best Description of a Trophy Collection. I'm honored.

JOY DOLO: As you should be. Now the story of how wheelchairs and basketball teamed up begins in the early 1930s.

OTIS: Frankenstein and Dracula are in their first movies, which are still in black and white. At home, people gathered around radios the size of mini fridges and listen to their favorite audio dramas.

JOY DOLO: There are no TVs or cell phones or computers.

OTIS: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are big baseball stars, and pop hits sound like this.

[1930S MUSIC]

JOY DOLO: It's got a good beat and you can dance to it. [VOCALIZING] Yeah!

OTIS: Joy, I like to give you this lapel pin in honor of whatever that just was.


JOY DOLO: Oh, thank you so much. It says Most Enthusiastic Dance Moves by an Amateur. Aw! Thanks, Otis! You know, I was a backup dancer at a Prince concert once? Well, I mean, I was in the wrong line for snacks, so I started backing up while dancing, but I think that counts.

OTIS: Totally counts. Another thing about the 1930s is that back then, wheelchairs stunk.

JOY DOLO: Not literally. They smelled fine, but they were heavy, made of wood, and couldn't even fit through most doorways.

OTIS: They were pretty much big, wooden chairs with wheels attached. Not flexible. Not foldable. Very heavy.

JOY DOLO: Imagine you wanted to go to the store for ice cream. You wouldn't be able to roll yourself there, so you'd need someone to push you.

OTIS: Then when you finally got there, your wheelchair might not be able to fit through the front door. Or even if it could, the ice cream shop might only have stairs. No wheelchair ramp.

JOY DOLO: So back then, if you used a wheelchair, you were still pretty limited in where you could go.

OTIS: This was just one of the ways that the US was not a welcoming place for people with disabilities. In fact, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected President in 1932, used a wheelchair.

JOY DOLO: But he tried really hard to hide his disability from the public and was hardly ever photographed using his wheelchair.

OTIS: So it felt like society was really telling people with disabilities, stay out of view. But something was coming that would challenge that idea. Something amazing. And it all started with an ingenious design.

JOY DOLO: Ooh, yes! Such a good teaser for the next part of the story. Hold on. I now present you this Blue Ribbon for-- do-do-do-do-doo, do-do-do-do-do-doo do-doo do-dooo! Best teaser in this particular episode of Forever Ago.


I hope it earns a place of pride in your trophy room.

OTIS: Definitely. And I present to you this engraved paperweight that says Best Active Listener Who Also Gives Awards.


JOY DOLO: Wow. The foresight that took to get this engraved. So I have this for you. The Trophy for Most Prepared Award Giver.


Now where were we?

OTIS: An ingenious design.

JOY DOLO: Ooh, yes. Bring it on, Otis.

OTIS: Prepare for it to be brondolo. The story of how wheelchairs went from clunky wooden contraptions to more modern designs starts with a guy named Herbert Everest. Herbert was a mining engineer and geologist who fractured his spine in an accident.

HERBERT EVEREST: And now, here I am using these terrible wheelchairs stuck in this house. I can't get a job or support my family.

OTIS: Until one day, his wife finally brought home a different kind of wheelchair.

HERBERT EVEREST: It was wood, but it was smaller. And I could roll it myself. It could also be folded up and put in a car. It was kind of flimsy and always breaking, but this not-so-great wheelchair gave me an idea for an actually really great one.

OTIS: Herbert enlisted the help of an engineer named Harry Jennings.

JOY DOLO: The two set up a workshop in a garage.

OTIS: They tinkered.

JOY DOLO: They designed.

OTIS: They dreamed.

JOY DOLO: Pretty soon, they had an entirely new kind of wheelchair.

OTIS: One that would change the lives of wheelchair users everywhere. We'll hear about that in a second, but first, it's time for--

JOY DOLO: OK, I know you want me to play the First Things First stinger right now, but I'm floored by that even more amazing teaser you just did. If you would, give me back that blue ribbon so I can bestow it upon you again.


JOY DOLO: I now present to you this Blue Ribbon for Best Teaser in this Particular Episode of Forever Ago.


Reunited and it Feels So Good.

JOY DOLO: Now it's really time for--

CROWD: First Things First!

JOY DOLO: So this is the game where we take three things and put them in order. From oldest to most recent. The Paralympics are right around the corner. That's the huge international sport competition for athletes with a range of physical disabilities. So I'm going to give you three different Paralympic sports and I want you to tell me in which order they were introduced as official Paralympic sports. Wheelchair tennis, blind football, and sitting volleyball. So which do you think came first, which came second, and which came most recently in history?

OTIS: I think blind football came first, wheelchair tennis came second, and then wheelchair-- what was it? Sitting volleyball? Came last.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, OK. So we have blind football first. What do you think that one's first?

OTIS: I think it's the easiest one to, like, introduce as a new sport in the paralympics, where as other ones, you have to invent new rules.

JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah.

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: So you think blind football was easier just because we already know how that is?

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. OK, and then-- so you think wheelchair tennis was next?

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. Why is that? I think wheelchair tennis was next because I've known a lot of people who've been playing wheelchair tennis for a really long time, and they've known a lot of people who've been playing wheelchair tennis for a really long time. So, yeah.

JOY DOLO: So it's been around for a long time--

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: --conclusion. I bet there are cavemen in their wheelchairs with their rackets just going back and forth on the court. [LAUGHS] And then sitting volleyball. Is there a certain reason that you thought this one was probably the most recent?

OTIS: I don't know. I feel like that one-- I feel like I knew the first two, so that one just-- it fell in third because that was the last spot, so yeah.

JOY DOLO: It's like leftovers.

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Not that sitting volleyball is the leftovers. We all love everybody that plays sitting volleyball. [LAUGHS] OK, so we'll hear the answers at the end of the episode right after the credits.

OTIS: We'll be right back.

JOY DOLO: Hey, Forever Ago friends. We love hearing your ideas and questions, so we want to know, what topic would you like to explore on Forever Ago? What history would you like to learn more about? Maybe there's a certain invention, person, or time period you're curious about. Whatever it is, we want to hear it.

Listeners, send us your episode ideas at foreverago.org/contact. And while you're there, you can send us your questions, compliments, and fan art. We love getting fan art. We're huge fans of fan art. Give us some fan art. Again, send it to us at foreverago.org/contact.

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JOY DOLO: You're listening to Forever Ago. I'm Joy.

OTIS: And I'm Otis.

JOY DOLO: And we're back. When we left off, we were hearing about how wheelchairs were not very useful before the 1930s.

OTIS: They were heavy, hard to move around, and big.

JOY DOLO: That made it hard for people who needed wheelchairs to go anywhere besides home.

OTIS: But then, an engineer named Herbert Everest teamed up with Harry Jennings to change all that. And boy, oh boy, did they succeed.



HERBERT EVEREST: And this is the. Everest and Jennings wheelchair.

HARRY JENNINGS: It's made of chromium-plated steel tubing.

HERBERT EVEREST: Which means it's super light and hard to break.

HARRY JENNINGS: We moved the two big wheels to the back and put these little tiny rotating wheels up front.

HERBERT EVEREST: More stable and easy to turn.

HARRY JENNINGS: The back and seat are made of plastic fabric so it can be folded up easy peasy.

JOY DOLO: The Everest--

HARRY JENNINGS: And Jennings--

JOY DOLO: Wheelchair.

JOY DOLO: The Everest and Jennings Company is still a big wheelchair maker today. Wheelchairs have gotten better and better over time, but you can still see the influence of that original design. So Otis, how long have you been using a wheelchair?

OTIS: I've been using a wheelchair for nine years now.

JOY DOLO: So can you describe what yours looks like?

OTIS: It's blue. It's very similar to the Herbert and Everest wheelchair.

JOY DOLO: Does it have big wheels?

OTIS: Yeah, it has pretty big wheels. It has two sets of wheels, two casters, and then two big wheels that you use to get around and move.

JOY DOLO: And the casters are like smaller wheels?

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Oh, cool. And then is there, like a foot rest area at the bottom or--

OTIS: Yeah, there's a foot rest at the bottom.

JOY DOLO: Oh, cool, cool. Did you pick the color blue?

OTIS: Yeah, I did. I get to pick the color of my wheelchair every time I get a new wheelchair.

JOY DOLO: That's nice. Do you think you're going to stick with blue or are you looking for other colors now and then?

OTIS: I don't know. I might change it the next time I get a wheelchair.

JOY DOLO: I wonder if you can get like a zebra-striped one. That's what I'd want.

OTIS: Yeah.


JOY DOLO: How often do you get a new one?

OTIS: I get a new wheelchair every five years.

JOY DOLO: Oh, cool. Wow. When is your next one due?

OTIS: It's due in 2025, so I'll get one next year.

JOY DOLO: [GASPS] Ooh, so you can get the zebra-striped one?

OTIS: Ah, I don't know.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, Otis, yeah!


Or you can stick with blue, whatever. This new kind of wheelchair was lighter, foldable, easier to maneuver, and it was going to help people with physical disabilities go places they couldn't go before.

OTIS: Soon, hand controls for cars would be invented, meaning people who used wheelchairs would be able to get themselves in a car, fold up their wheelchair, and then drive the car all on their own.

JOY DOLO: There were still a lot of places that were tough for wheelchair users to go. Things like ramps, accessible doors and elevators wouldn't be required in public buildings until almost 60 years later.

OTIS: But this new kind of wheelchair was an important first step. And even helped some wheelchair users become sports stars.

JOY DOLO: Around the time that Harry and Herbert invented their new wheelchair, war broke out across the globe.

OTIS: World War II. It was a huge conflict and more than 50 different countries were involved, including the United States.

JOY DOLO: Soldiers from the US were fighting overseas in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.

OTIS: The war lasted six years and nearly 85 million people died. Millions more were injured.

JOY DOLO: World War II was different from all wars before it, not just the level of destruction, but also the number of people who survived the war. You see, technology and medicine had improved by then to the point where more soldiers were able to live with their injuries.

OTIS: Thousands of them ended up back in the US with spinal cord injuries. For many of them, this meant that they could no longer use their legs to get around. Many of them were paralyzed.

JOY DOLO: Many of these disabled veterans recovered at special hospitals that were just for veterans with spinal cord injuries.

OTIS: These veterans were young men who were relearning how to do everything, from getting out of bed to having hobbies.

JOY DOLO: As these young guys figured out how to do all their daily tasks and got stronger thanks to physical therapy, they were a little bored.

OTIS: The people in charge of the veterans hospitals saw a fondness, a super important part of healing, too. There were movies to watch, concerts to see, bowling tournaments, and celebrity visits.

JOY DOLO: There are also lots of sports, including basketball. At first it was just a sport for the veterans without physical disabilities.

OTIS: But it turns out that a basketball court is a very satisfying place to use a wheelchair. It's super smooth and you can go fast.

JOY DOLO: Pick-up games of wheelchair basketball started happening naturally in more than one of these veterans hospitals.

OTIS: Good ideas tend to happen in more than one place.

JOY DOLO: Oh, hold up. That line needs a trophy. Here you go. The plaque reads, Line Most Likely to End Up on a Bumper Sticker.


OTIS: Oh, wow, I'm going to need a bigger trophy shelf.

JOY DOLO: So people were playing wheelchair basketball on their own and the sport was getting popular, but like any good sport, it needed a set of rules.

OTIS: A team from a veterans hospital in California made these rules.


WEST COAST COACH: OK, listen up. Your wheelchair is an extension of your body. Your chairs can touch, but no intentional ramming. After two pushes on the wheels, you have to pass, dribble, or shoot. The baskets and free throw line are staying as is. Got it? Now give me 20 laps!

OTIS: These became known as the West Coast rules.

JOY DOLO: The East Coast rules were developed at a hospital in Massachusetts, and they were pretty different.

EAST COAST COACH: OK, there will be no contact between players, neither body parts nor chairs. And push your chair as much as you like. Just balance that ball on your lap and fly, baby, fly.

WEST COAST COACH: Excuse me? Those rules are ridiculous! They destroy the flow, the grace, and the rhythm of the game!

EAST COAST COACH: West Coasters just can't handle the speed. Go fast or get out.

WEST COAST COACH: Oh, I'm sorry you East Coasters aren't tough enough to have a little friendly jostle.

EAST COAST COACH: I'm sorry your team aren't champions.

WEST COAST COACH: I'm sorry your team aren't champions.

OTIS: Yeah, both of these teams claim to be champions, even though they were using different rules.

JOY DOLO: Wheelchair basketball teams started touring the country, at first playing non-wheelchair users and borrowed chairs.

OTIS: And the wheelchair teams destroyed the non-wheelchair players.

JOY DOLO: More teams formed across the country with cool names like The Rolling Devils and The Flying Wheels. And they started playing each other.

OTIS: And the teams opened up to more than just veterans. Now any man who used a wheelchair was welcome to join.

JOY DOLO: And wheelchair basketball was played at the first Paralympic Games in 1960. Women's teams formed in the '60s, too.

OTIS: And wheelchair basketball is still going strong. The NWBA, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, has 225 teams in the US and Canada, including 85 youth teams. Go Minnesota Junior Rolling Timberwolves!

JOY DOLO: Whoo! OK, so I need to know which set of rules won, the West Coast rules or the East Coast ones? What do you use today, Otis?

OTIS: Everybody plays with the West Coast rules.

JOY DOLO: I got a chance to visit one of your practices, and it was so much fun. You guys are fierce. I even got to talk to some of your teammates.

IAN: Hi, my name is Ian.

KENZIE: I'm Kenzie.

LUCAS: Hi, I'm Lucas.

JOY DOLO: What is something that you think is a common misconception about the sport?

IAN: Maybe they'll think that, like, we don't play as hard or we're not, like, at the higher level, but, like, it's probably a lot more physical than regular, like, stand-up basketball.

JOY DOLO: How has wheelchair basketball changed your life?

KENZIE: Before when I came into it, I didn't really have people around me that were like me, and I feel like that changed me a lot.

IAN: Yeah. Just like seeing people around me who are, like, the same, I guess.

LUCAS: I love the sport, and I love all the coaches and everybody who brought me in. And I can't thank them enough.

KENZIE: It's just a fun thing to do and I feel like it changes people's lives once they see it and realize that it's just like any other sport.


JOY DOLO: It was so cool to meet you and your team at practice, Otis. It was my first time seeing people play wheelchair basketball, and it was so cool. And it's so fast. Oh my gosh, just flying across the court. How do you think playing wheelchair basketball has changed your life?

OTIS: It's been really awesome. I've gotten to meet a lot of new friends and travel across the world to places that I never would have gone without wheelchair basketball.

JOY DOLO: What's the chair that you use for basketball like?

OTIS: It's pretty awesome. I use a Top End Pro. It has wheels that are curved outwards for more aerodynamics. And, yeah, it goes pretty fast.

JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah I know you like to fly 20 miles, watch out.


So what changes could make wheelchairs even better, you think?

OTIS: You can get a wheelchair customized to your body. So that's what I'm hoping to get when I'm older.

JOY DOLO: So what does that mean, customized to your body.?

OTIS: It would fit your body perfectly, so to the point where your arms wouldn't have to reach farther and to the point where you could go faster.

JOY DOLO: Oh. Listen, I don't know if we can go faster than 20 miles. You might start vomiting over the edges there. Well, Otis, it's been so wonderful to share the studio with a champion like you who loves trophies as much as I do.

OTIS: I still have one trophy left that I was hoping to give away today. It's this one.

JOY DOLO: [GASPS] Does that say Best Acappella Rendition of the Forever Ago Theme Song?

OTIS: It sure does.

JOY DOLO: Don't mind if I do.


OTIS: Before the 1930s, the most common wheelchairs were not portable or easy to maneuver.

JOY DOLO: The Everest and Jennings Wheelchair changed all that with a light, foldable new design.

OTIS: Wheelchair basketball was born in the 1940s when disabled veterans started goofing around in hospital gyms.

JOY DOLO: It became a huge hit, with teams forming across the country and the world.


OTIS: And if you want access to ad-free episodes and special bonus content, subscribe to our Smarty Pass.

JOY DOLO: OK, Otis. Are you ready to hear the answers for First Things First?

OTIS: Yep.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, you are. Can I get a woot-woot!

OTIS: Woot-woot!

JOY DOLO: Yeah! All right, let's see. As a reminder, I gave you three different Paralympic sports, and I want you to tell me in which order they were introduced as official Paralympic sports. And so you said blind football, and then wheelchair tennis, and sitting volleyball. And here's the answers. OK, Otis, you did a good job, but first up was actually sitting volleyball. It was first introduced to the Paralympics in 1980.

OTIS: Wow.

JOY DOLO: That's before I was born. Yeah, yeah. So sitting volleyball is a super fast-paced game where players volley the ball back and forth over a net, but they must keep at least one cheek on the ground at all times. It was first invented in the 1950s in the Netherlands. Isn't that interesting?

OTIS: Yeah. I would have never thought that would be first.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. And the cheeks would be so important to it.

OTIS: Yeah.


JOY DOLO: And then second up was-- you were absolutely correct-- wheelchair tennis.

OTIS: Yes!

JOY DOLO: Yes! You did it! Wheelchair tennis was introduced to the Paralympics in 1992. In addition to being played as part of the Paralympics, it also played at all four Grand Slam Tennis Tournaments, the Australian Open, the US Open, French Open, and Wimbledon. Otis, have you ever played wheelchair tennis?

OTIS: Yeah, I actually do wheelchair tennis during the summer.

JOY DOLO: Oh, do you really?

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Do you like it?

OTIS: Yeah, it's awesome.

JOY DOLO: Do you like it more than wheelchair basketball?


JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] Well, they tried. OK. Blind football was added to the paralympics most recently. Also known as blind soccer or football five-a-side, it was added to the Paralympics in 2004. The ball makes noise so players can locate it, and teams can use a guide who can help direct players from the sidelines. Have you ever seen a game like that?

OTIS: No, I've never seen a game like that. I've watched soccer before, but not like that. That would be pretty awesome to see.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah. It's cool that it makes a sound so you can figure out where it's coming from.

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. Which one of these was most surprising to you?

OTIS: I feel like the sitting volleyball because I put that last. So I never thought that that would be first.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. It was the leftovers, and it was actually needed to be the firstovers.

OTIS: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] Well, you did a good job anyway.

Join us next week for a new episode all about idioms, those short little fun phrases we use that don't make sense until you know what they're supposed to mean. Be there or be square. That's an idiom.

OTIS: Thanks for listening.


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