CHAMPAIGN — As he caught the ball on the State Farm Center floor last Saturday and thousands of eyes fixed at him, JoJo Hayes looked toward the basket took a few quick, confident dribbles.
A year ago when, the YFC Midnight Basketball League played at halftime of the Illinois game, doubt might have crept through his mind, but not this time. The Franklin STEAM Academy seventh-grader has fine-tuned his shot, and however unconventional it may seem to some, he knows he’s likely to hit any three he takes.
So Hayes reared his arms back until the ball was all the way behind his head, then thrust forward and let it fly. The shot swished through the net, and the crowd went wild.
“I wanted to cry,” he said. “There were a lot of people that were like, ‘Ahhhhhh.’ I went last year, but I didn’t really make points. That time, it was crazy. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was just cool.”
Hayes is a double amputee, a consequence of contracting meningitis at age 1. That has never stopped him from playing able-bodied basketball, though.
He played at the park when he was a kid with his two brothers — the three of them are triplets — leaving his chair off to the side of the court. He learned to hold the ball just so and heave it with his big arms.
“It’s hard,” he said, “but I’ve got a lot of upper-body strength.”
Since then, Hayes has become obsessed. He plays at lunch at Franklin, on the weekends at Douglass Community Center, and on Fridays during Midnight Basketball.
Experiences in a competitive environment, though, have been rare. But a few people are trying to make sure Hayes can experience those competitive moments.
Last summer, through a mentorship program, Hayes was put into contact with Illinois wheelchair basketball coach Matt Buchi, who invited him to the team’s summer camp. He stayed on campus with other disabled athletes, and the team set him up with a basketball chair — a much quicker way to get up and down the court, he noticed.
“It was great,” he said. “Playing wheelchair basketball is fun and easier than playing out of my chair that I usually do, because the wheelchair is faster.”
They also taught him about the intricacies of the wheelchair game, some of which are different from the able-bodied version.
“I would say for him, there was a little bit of shock because their rules are different, and I would say it feels a little different to play in a chair,” said Franklin counselor Danielle Gray, a maternal figure for Hayes who helped him with the logistics of attending the camp. “I think moving in the chair, learning how to pass the ball, learning how to be a teammate, passing the ball instead of being the superstar who shoots all the time, I think he’s perfected that skill because he competes with people that are able-bodied, but when it’s wheelchair basketball, it levels the playing field a little. So he had to adjust to not shooting threes all the time and being able to strategize in the game of basketball.”
Finding Hayes a team to play on has been a bit more complicated, because the closest team is currently in Peoria. Gray and others are working to make sure he’s able to utilize his new basketball chair, and there is a possibility that he’ll be able to play locally at some point.
In the meantime, he’ll find a way to play, chair or no chair.
“There are definitely obstacles for Joseph,” Gray said, “but he always has such a great attitude about anything when it comes to basketball.
“He doesn’t give up on anything. He’s liked by his peers, he’s a leader, he doesn’t see himself as limited in any way, especially when it comes to basketball. He’s so passionate about it. He really does strive to conquer anything that he puts his mind to.”