Wheeled wonders: 1969-70 wheelchair-basketball champs reminisce about team

Wheeled wonders: 1969-70 wheelchair-basketball champs reminisce about team

CHAMPAIGN — Kim Pollock was excited when he enrolled at Illinois in 1966, and with good reason.

After all, he was set to join the Illinois football program as a manager, just like he had done in high school. He couldn't actually play sports, he was always told, after his legs were damaged because of the polio he contracted as a child.

But this was the next best thing.

Then, when he was out for a walk by the outdoor basketball courts on the west end of campus just after he arrived in Champaign, his life changed.

"I saw these guys playing basketball in wheelchairs," he said. "I had never seen that or heard about that before. ... It was one of those events that change your life, and you don't even realize it at the time."

As it turned out, the guys playing pickup were members of the Illinois wheelchair-basketball team, including future National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Famer Tom Brown. They had an extra chair and told him to hop in.

The rest is Illinois wheelchair-basketball history. This weekend, Pollock will return to Champaign, where he and those players he met on that outdoor court won the 1969 and 1970 National Wheelchair Basketball Association national championships. That group will be honored at State Farm Center, where Illinois is hosting the college national championships.

"It was a unique mix" of players, said Richard Feltes, another member of that team. "The fact that Illinois was able to put together this 'once-in-50-years combination,' it was really an accomplishment."

At first, Pollock wasn't as talented as his teammates, although he sat tall in his chair and could stretch his long arms to gain an advantage. But after countless hours practicing and nights spent in his dorm room tossing the ball toward the ceiling again and again in a shooting motion, he improved markedly over a few years.

And during the 1968-69 season, he formed a formidable tandem down low with Ed Owen, who stood 6-foot-10, while Brown ran the point.

"We kept getting better as a team and knowing each other's strengths and how to compensate for each other," Brown said. "It was a pretty unselfish team."

At that time, Illinois was still on the forefront of accessibility and athletics for disabled students. Because of that, there weren't any other college teams to play.

So instead, they played in the NWBA against players of all ages. The previous year, their season ended with a postseason loss to the Detroit Flying Sparks, who went on to win their third straight national title.

And in the 1969 national championship at Assembly Hall, the script looked the same. The Gizz Kids, as the Illinois team was called, trailed by double digits early against Detroit. Behind Brown's 16 points, though, they chipped away and eventually forced overtime.

After knocking down 5-of-9 free throws in the extra period, they won the game 49-42. They would go on to beat Detroit again the following year in the national championship at Huff Hall.

Today, that 1969 team doesn't just represent a seminal moment in Illinois athletics. It represents a time when adapted athletics were far from the public eye, and Illinois was an oasis for disabled students who wanted to play sports.

Like Pollock, Feltes, who also contracted polio as a child, had never played a sport. He swam only with a belt that kept him afloat. When he got to Illinois, he dove into athletics. Coaches took his swimming belt away and made him learn to stay buoyant by his own power.

He became a rotation player for the national championship wheelchair-basketball teams, and he won a bronze medal in the 1968 Paralympics in the 60-meter dash.

"Because of that experience, we were set up to tackle the world," Feltes said shortly after returning home from a swim, which he does regularly to this day. "There are so many examples of these athletes who went on to distinguish themselves in their professional careers and be engaged, active citizens, taxpayers and so forth. I have nothing but great things to say about Illinois and the boost it gave to me."