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Tim Nugent (USA)
Steve Goldberg's Wheel World
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Rebel with a cause - Dr Tim Nugent defied the medical establishment to build wheelchair basketball

Charlotte (Steve Goldberg's Wheel World) - While it is common knowledge that Dr James Naismith is credited with inventing the game of basketball in 1891, no one's name is mentioned when it comes to the founding of the NBA. Perhaps that's because it was the result of a merger.

Its main predecessor, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) began in 1946 and was done so - I am not making this up - primarily to fill arenas when the home hockey team was away, an idea attributed to the owner of the Boston Garden and home to the Bruins, Walter Brown who would be the first owner of the Boston Celtics.

In fact, the first president of the BAA was Maurice Podoloff who was also president of the American Hockey League.

Not so for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) where one man gets all the credit. The NWBA was founded by Dr Timothy Nugent, who also created the first comprehensive program of higher education for individuals with disabilities at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1948.

That same year, Dr Nugent started the Gizz Kids, the original collegiate wheelchair basketball team, organized the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, and later that year founded the NWBA to provide a year-round structure to the game.

Mind you, this was the same year that the BAA consolidated the remaining teams of the National Basketball League - four had jumped leagues the before that season - and was renamed as the National Basketball Association (NBA) that we know today.

In case anyone asks, FIBA was founded in 1932.

Now 92 years old, Dr Nugent sounded much younger when he took my call and talked with me about how it all came about. The first part of that conversation follows now.

Goldberg: When did you begin to see sport as a rehabilitation device?
Nugent: I think I was aware of it throughout most of my life because I had a father who was near deaf and near blind, a brilliant business man but that's where it stopped. He was good at anything beyond that. And I say that respectively.

I had a sister who was very talented. She played piano and was an acrobatic dance at the age of six onstage when she started to have visual problems and the doctors at that time forbid her to dance or play the piano anymore. I saw the psychological impact on her and to this day she has never really recovered from that.

The attitude of the medical profession was just to take it away from her which I still don't understand.

I myself was born with a bad heart 92 years ago when they didn't do much about it and didn't know much about the heart. I did everything they told me not to do because I wanted to be part of the gang. I learned a lot through that process and all of it helped me when this opportunity came along.

Goldberg: Wheelchair basketball was first being used with injured soldiers coming back from WWII in 1946; how did you get involved with it?
Nugent: I knew that Van Nuys (California, site of the Birmingham Veterans Administration Hospital) had it and I knew that (Cardinal) Cushing (VA Hospital in Boston) had it and it was up in the Bronx (VA Hospital in New York). Each had their own set of rules.

Because sports meant so much to me in my life, it's hard to tell you but without sports in my younger years, in the Depression years, I wouldn't have made it. That was my entry into various aspects of living that I would not have had the opportunity to do without sports. So it always meant a great deal to me and I thought it could mean the same thing to these young folks with disabilities.

So I contacted the other places to learn what they were doing and decided that it should go beyond that, to be available to people once they got out of the hospitals and those who never got into the hospitals.

That's when I decided to get six teams together for the first national wheelchair basketball program in 1948. I also decided to modify the rules so to make it more like the regular game and which could be more understood by the regular public.

Goldberg: Was this your first time seeing wheelchair basketball, when you were actually organizing it? What were some of the obstacles in getting started?
Nugent: Yes it was. I had played and coached regular basketball. It wasn't hard to make the transition to play in a wheelchair. I disagreed with the medical profession and the medical profession and I were at odds for many, many years because they said that paraplegics would only live for three years or three months.

They objected to the fact that I required them (the students with a disability at Illinois) to take a full load (of classes). They objected to many things that I believed were essential and, of course, it turned out that my beliefs were confirmed.

Golberg: Well, you learned that through your own personal experience of defying doctors who told you not to do anything because of your heart.
Nugent: I was very active until last year when I broke my back for the third time. So I’m not quite as active as I used to be.


Remember, these are the words of a 92-year-old. He certainly didn't sound less active. It was my honor to talk with this wonderfully accomplished and influential man for a while so there will be more to come later this season.

Steve Goldberg


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Steve Goldberg

Steve Goldberg

Eight years after first getting a glimpse of wheelchair basketball at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul when covering the Olympics for UPI, Steve Goldberg got the chance to really understand the game as Chief Press Officer for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. He's been a follower of the sport ever since. Over the years, the North Carolina-born and bred Tar Heel fan - but University of Georgia grad - has written on business, the economy, sports, and people for media including Time, USA Today, New York magazine, Reuters, Universal Sports, TNT, ESPN, New York Daily News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Olympian. Steve Goldberg's Wheel World will look at the past, present and future of wheelchair basketball.