"I was like, 'Wow, I can actually do this!' " Malat Lueth Wei says, remembering his first time trying wheelchair basketball.
That was over 10 years ago. Since then, the sport has taken him all over the world. Wei has shot hoops at basketball arenas across the U.S., where he is one of the country's best players, and in France, where he played professionally. This summer, he came to Washington, D.C., to speak at a screening of No Limits, a short documentary that featured him.
And in 2018, he returned to his homeland of South Sudan, where he helped introduce the game to its disabled population.
Wei was born in what is now South Sudan and diagnosed with polio at age 3. His father went missing during the civil wars leading to the country's eventual independence in 2011. During those volatile times, their family ended up at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where Wei remembers crawling around on his arms on dirt roads before getting a wheelchair. When he was 12, his family moved to Houston.
He had a tough time adjusting in the United States. It was quite late in his childhood to make such a huge move, and he was enrolled in sixth grade despite knowing very little English. Some kids made fun of him, but a more accepting group introduced him to the sport that would change the trajectory of his life.
"I used to go to the park with the with the community kids, with all the children in the neighborhood ... to go play basketball with them," Wei says. He was the only one shooting from a wheelchair. "The fact that they actually treated me as equal and not somebody less, you know, that's where everything started."
Eventually, a friend began looking into local wheelchair basketball facilities. Wei got in, trained hard and started traveling with a local team to competitions, and things took off from there.
Wei, 25, loves being in the gym, flying across the court in a specialized wheelchair designed to move fast and turn easily. The games are incredibly intense, with screeching tires, crashing metal and the impressive coordination and grit of the athletes on display. As someone who loved sports so much that he played soccer with his hands at the refugee camp, Wei treasures this opportunity to compete.
"It means the world to me just to share my message with the world, of what I have accomplished in life, from where I came from, with nothing, not knowing how to read or write English," Wei says.
His return to South Sudan was inspired by the work of another wheelchair basketball star — Jess Markt, who leads international wheelchair basketball programs for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Markt was a Division 1 track athlete at the University of Oregon before he was paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident over 20 years ago. He completed physical rehab, earned his degree and started working in communications but felt something was missing.
Before his injury, basketball was his favorite sport. It would be a few years before he gave the wheelchair version a shot.
"I heard about it," Markt says, "but I didn't know much, and I just kind of thought, 'Is that really going to be as much fun as the basketball I grew up with?' "
It turned out to be just as much fun — and far more meaningful than he could have imagined.
"I've always talked about it as kind of the culmination of my rehabilitation process," Markt says.
After nine years playing in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, he heard that a team in Afghanistan was reaching out to U.S.-based leagues looking for a coach. Markt answered the call, leaving his office job in 2009 to be the volunteer coach of a wheelchair basketball team thousands of miles away.
In 2012, the ICRC hired him to run wheelchair basketball camps in areas where either violence or lack of proper medical care means that a disproportionate number of people are living with a disability.
"War has has utterly crippled the medical system," Markt says of the conditions in South Sudan and other conflict-stricken countries he has worked in. "So really, almost everyone that we work with is, in some way, either a direct or tangential result of conflict."
"I think the initial powerful benefit of doing this is really getting people out of their homes, out of the situation of being truly marginalized," he adds.
"What I have learned from adaptive sports is that it allows individuals to test their boundaries in ways that a lot of the world or society or community doesn't allow us to explore," says Mia Ives-Rublee, who consults businesses and nonprofits on disability issues and was herself a wheelchair athlete. She attended the State Department screening of the film about Wei and Markt.
Markt went to Juba, South Sudan, to run a camp in 2017, which caught the attention of Wei. He reached out to Markt, hoping to be involved.
"I saw him on a video," Wei said. "I'm like, 'Wow, this is this is actually cool ... and there's already somebody that is doing it in my country?' "
He said he thought, "If I can connect with him, we can make a difference. We can change people's lives by playing wheelchair basketball."
One year later, the two were on a plane together as Wei returned to South Sudan for the first time since he was a kid. His ability to speak local languages was invaluable, says Markt. And the two of them set up games where groups from opposite sides of the civil conflict played together on the court — in their wheelchairs.
"It was amazing to have these groups playing alongside one another when such interaction is so rare these days," Markt says.
Back in his American home, Wei is attending community college and hopes to play on the University of Arizona's varsity wheelchair basketball team while completing his bachelor's degree — the school is a leader in adaptive sports. After that, he plans on championing human rights and social stability in South Sudan, where he hopes to start a business and continue to work to help its people.
"I want peace in South Sudan," he says, "for everybody to come together as one and treat each other equally, and build a nation."
Reflecting on his visit to his homeland, he recalls, "They see me as somebody who went through what they went through," Wei says. "Now that they have discovered something new, something that they can achieve. It was not just playing basketball all the time. It gave them confidence, to go out and reach for other things."
And that's what wheelchair basketball has done for him, he adds: "It just took off and took me to places I thought I was definitely not going to."
Aman Kidwai (@AmanfromCT) is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., who covers sports, business and community news for media outlets like Washington City Paper and SB Nation.
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