A First for Phillip

26 10 2011

The new kid arrived late to basketball practice. I had just started a drill with the other players and I could tell that Phillip felt apprehensive about interrupting what was already going on in the gym. The other players were doing their thing, but for the moment they had their attention diverted to the new face near the entrance. Some coaches may have carried on and ignored the intrusion of a late player. This would never happen on our team.

I spent the next few minutes setting up Phillip in a sport wheelchair, ensuring that there were adequate foot straps and that the black velcro band that sat across his lap was able to be tight enough for him. He hadn’t sat in a sport chair before and I could tell he was looking forward to trying out his new set of wheels. He sped off and joined in to what he was able to do and by the end of the night, felt very much included by the others.

That was last week.

At practice yesterday, it seemed like Phillip had been there for years. Eager. Confident. He was calling other players by their nicknames and simply put, he was having a blast. I’m not sure even he was ready for what was about to happen.

In wheelchair basketball, we teach our kids to position themselves to the side of the hoop where their chances for scoring are far greater than if they were to face it head on. Using the backboard is critical and so layups are a fundamental drill we do. Start out wide up at the top of the key, cut to the hoop, make sure your chair is pointed at a 45 degree angle to the basket, wait while you coast closer, and at precisely the right time – shoot off the backboard and hope for the best. Some of our kids are very skilled at this and are excellent role models to rookies like Phillip.

If you were to ask him, having Cerebral Palsy presents an additional challenge in the gym for Phillip’s core strength is lacking and his shooting range is limited. I placed him under the 8 1/2 foot hoop where I thought his chances of success would be greatest, but his shots barely hit the rim time after time. He was determined however, and looked to me as to what he could do to get it up that precious 6 inches further. “Let’s try something else” I offered.

A National Team Coach taught me that momentum can be a fantastic thing for players like Phillip. The sheer momentum of a moving wheelchair may be just the thing that would allow Phillip to improve his shots. So from about the 3 point line, he got in his shooting position and I pushed him toward the hoop and waited for the results. It wasn’t a textbook shot, but he did hit the backboard up high which was a good sign. “Let’s do this again Phillip – remember what we talked about” I offered.

His second shot was like something one would see in a movie like Hoosiers. It went off the backboard, it bounced around up there and eventually it went in! I was so proud that his determination paid off. “I scored! I scored!” was all that we heard. The moment was his. “I scored my first basket!” What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was the first basket Phillip scored – ever. Not just the first of the night, it was the first of his life. A very special moment indeed. You can imagine the smile on this 15-year old’s face that seemed to extend as wide as the gym itself. What  made it even better was there was even a few parents in addition to the rest of the team that got to see it firsthand.

As teachers, we live for the moment when we can see in our student’s eyes that the concept has been caught. As coaches, moments like these ones with a basketball and a wheelchair make it all worthwhile. What a privilege to be involved in a first for Phillip!


“Just Try” (3 somewhat related vignettes from my week’s activities)

2 10 2011

“Mrs. Hagkull?” My gaze shifts away from the pages of the book I’m reading to the Kindergarten class as Jaden’s voice interrupts mine. For the 3rd time of the day, I gently correct her. It’s hard for a young student at the beginning of the school year to remember all the rules and routines of the classroom. “Jaden, a boy teacher is always a mister.  Girl teachers can be a Mrs. or a Miss, but a teacher who is a man is always a mister. You can call me Mr. Hagkull, okay?” Her gaze drops and she seems uncertain. “I don’t think I can remember that,” she says with a look of genuine concern. “Just try Jaden. I think you can.”


Wednesday was our school’s annual Terry Fox Run and this day has a lot of meaning for me. At Tyson Elementary, we began with an assembly in the gym, including a very inspirational video clip and then each class filed outside to participate in a school-wide run through the neighboring streets. As a Prep teacher with no class in particular to supervise, my role was to stay back with the dozen or so students that did not have their off-campus permission slips signed and we walked/jogged around the perimeter of the school fields. “Your not going to let old Mr. Hagkull pass you, are you?” I joked as I caught up to a group of Gr. 4 boys.  One of them replied with a “I can’t run very fast.”

“Just try” I said. “We’re doing this for Terry today.” After a brief pause, (after I assume he was reflecting on what I said) he started to sprint. It made me smile.


“Hey Brad, what are you doing?” The voice was from one of girls who was in my youth group years ago. “Blowing up tires, what does it look like?” I replied. We were both at our town’s Community Centre – she was working out and I was in a storage room with 21 sport wheelchairs and getting ready for the first Chilliwack Cheetahs Wheelchair Basketball practice of the season. As the coach, this is one of the preparation responsibilities that other coaches in the stand up game don’t get to experience. “Have you ever sat in one of these?” I asked her.

“Uhhh, I don’t think . . .”

I intentionally cut her off: “The gym’s empty right now. Why don’t you take one for a spin? I’ve even got a basketball for you. Just try” Once Kate sat down in the wheelchair and tried to push and dribble at the same time, a big smile overtook her face. “This is harder than it looks!” she said. For the next 20 minutes, Kate, her new husband and his brother each had their own wheelchair and motored around the gym, laughing at each others inabilities. It was pretty cool to watch.


I’m a big believer in the fact that extra effort deserves to be recognized. And when people around you respond to a challenge you’ve given to try something new, it’s an especially rewarding thing to watch unfold. This week I found that there is power in the “Just trys”. I’m thinking that I need to incorporate that phrase into my conversations a  bit more.