Team manager takes the court in wheelchair

PHOENIX — The crowd erupted Friday night when senior Brandon Wechsler led the Pinnacle High School boy’s basketball team into a packed gymnasium before the team’s game with Sandra Day O’Connor High. TV cameras focused in on him as students chanted his name.

Wechsler was making his debut for the Pioneers, but this was no ordinary debut.
After nearly four seasons as the team’s manager, Wechsler was about to become the first player in Arizona high school basketball history to play in a game from a wheelchair.

The crowd roared so loud as Wechsler was introduced last in the starting lineup his name could not even be heard. With his parents tearing up on the sidelines and his best friend on the court with him, Wechsler started and remained in the game for only 10 seconds, but they were the best 10 seconds of his life so far.

“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” Wechsler said at halftime. “It was so surreal. Those fans were crazy out there.

“My 10 seconds of fame.”

About 10 years ago, Wechsler, 18, was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes muscle degeneration and weakness. Wechsler’s parents, Len and Eydie, realized something was wrong when their son was having trouble getting himself out of bed and walking normally. A muscle biopsy confirmed the disease.

Wechsler has since had 10 surgeries. He hasn’t walked since he fell and broke a bone in his leg when he was about 10 years old. He now uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. He operates the chair with his hands but he has not been able to raise his arms since having a pair of back surgeries in 2010.

Len excelled at basketball growing up in Los Angeles, enough to play briefly at the University of Missouri. His love of the game rubbed off on Brandon, who knew early on he wanted to play. Duchenne’s robbed him of that dream, but he remained passionate about the sport.

The summer before Wechsler’s freshman year at Pinnacle, coach Charlie Wilde received a note from the school’s psychologist wondering if there was any way to involve Wechsler with the basketball team. Wilde didn’t have to think twice before bringing Wechsler in as the team’s manager.

Wechsler doesn’t perform the typical duties of a manager, such as handing out towels or water, but his teammates and coaches say the things he offers — fist bumps, encouragement and perspective — are much more important.

“He’s just been an inspiration to everybody here,” Wilde said. “He goes around pepping everybody up, cheering them on. And he knows basketball too, so he’s not afraid to tell them, ‘You can’t do this,’ or, ‘Do that.’ “

That outgoing nature helped Wechsler meet his best friend Drew Bender, a four-year starter on the team.

“He just came up to me and was like ‘You need to go to the basket more,’ or this and that, and I was like ‘OK, I just met you, but thanks,’ ” Bender said. “Our friendship kind of just grew from there.”

Each season, Wilde said, the team has done something special for Wechsler. One year it was a team bag, another it was the No. 42 jersey he wore Friday night. Last season, teammates voted Wechsler “Most Inspiring Player,” an award that has since been named after him.

“I wasn’t even on the ballot, and they all voted for me,” Wechsler recalled. “I had no clue.”

For Wechsler’s senior season, though, Wilde and the players knew they needed to do something extra special. Wilde began getting approval from the school, the school district, the Arizona Interscholastic Association and Sandra Day O’Connor for Wechsler to get into a game. There was discussion but not a trace of objection.

“He loves basketball so much, but he’s really never been on a court other than maybe as a little kid,” Wilde said. “We just felt like we could get him on the court.”

Wechsler admits he didn’t believe his coach at first when he learned he would get to take the court. He couldn’t speak for a few minutes. The gesture from his team started as something small but, as the game approached, snowballed into a phenomenon.

Friends and teammates began a social media campaign to get Wechsler’s debut featured on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and made T-shirts to promote their cause. Len said talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has expressed interest in having Brandon on her show. Even before the game had occurred, Len said, three movie producers had approached him about buying the rights to Brandon’s story. One even flew from Los Angeles to Phoenix to meet him before tipoff on Friday.

But none of that meant as much to Wechsler as the opportunity he had to help others with his newfound fame. Mark Daus, the president of X-treme apparel in Phoenix and a family friend for almost a decade, suggested to Wechsler they start a foundation to help others. They decided on “B-Inspired” after Wechsler’s nickname “B,” and Daus has begun the process of establishing the foundation as a 501(c)3 charitable organization.

“It’s really a platform where you can start to gain some momentum and raise some money to help people,” Daus said. “And what better thing than to be helping kids?”

Daus printed shirts with Brandon’s face and the foundation’s name on the front. On the back is one of Wechsler’s mottos: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

Daus and volunteers sold the shirts at the game and continue to sell them online for $10, of which $7 will go to directly to families of disabled youths.

“I want to show kids in wheelchairs, or not even just in wheelchairs — everybody — that it’s good to be an inspiration,” Wechsler said. “It helps people get through a lot of tough times and struggles in life.”

It is that positive attitude that strikes those who meet him most.

“His attitude is just incredible,” Bender said. “Even after all he’s been through, if you met him, you’d just think he’s the happiest kid in the world.”

Added Len Wechsler: “It’s unbelievable. I had prostate cancer last year, and he got me through it — his attitude.”

Despite his ongoing battle with Duchenne’s, a disease that might take his life before he turns 30, Wechsler has had plenty of happy moments recently. Earlier this month, he met New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow, who was in Phoenix for offseason workouts. Last Thursday, while attending a Suns game, he met Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. But no moment could come close to all that occurred Friday.

Pinnacle held a lunchtime pep rally for Wechsler, who received a new pair of neon green Nike Hyperdunk shoes from teammates. He couldn’t wear them for the game, though, because of recent foot surgeries.

“With some physical therapy, we’ll get to that,” Wechsler insists.

Before the game, Wechsler did at least a dozen interviews with various media outlets, greeted old friends and Pinnacle players and, mostly, anticipated his big moment.

“Is it getting crowded out there?” Wechsler asked, clearly anxious. “How packed is it?”

He found out just how full the gym was when he led the team onto the court where he posed for pictures as teammates went through pregame warmups. Former Suns All-Star Tom Chambers stopped by to congratulate him, and students held up photos of Wechsler’s face.

Before the tipoff, Bender walked over to Wechsler to say a few words.

“He was just telling me how much he loved me and he was so grateful I got to be on the court,” Wechsler said.

Said Bender of having Wechsler in the starting lineup: “It’s like a dream come true. I’ve known Brandon since my freshman year, and I idolize him, really.”

The opening tip went to Pinnacle guard Dorian Pickens, who dribbled and handed off to Wechsler. After moving to his right a bit, Wechsler handed the ball off to Bender, and a timeout was called. Pinnacle players mobbed Wechsler before he took his usual place at the end of the bench.

For Wechsler, it was the thrill of his life. Pinnacle won the game easily, and he did end up on “SportsCenter” later that night, along with nearly every local TV station.

“It means so much,” Wechsler said after his debut, seemingly unable to stop smiling. “I never thought this would be possible.”