by Ricki Ptakowski (Philadelphia Sixers website)
Imagine being a 21-year-old junior in college with aspirations, hopes, and dreams. You love sports and the competitiveness that they bring out in you. You're active, energetic, and full of life. The world is yours.
One day you are driving around with your friends enjoying life. The next day you are lying in a hospital bed, not knowing where you are, or how you got there. The doctor tells you that you had an accident while rock climbing, that you are paralyzed, and that you will never walk again. You think you are dreaming, but you can't wake up.
For most of us this would be a nightmare, but for Mike Looney this is his reality. On February 20, 2000, Mike was in a terrible rock climbing accident that left him partially paralyzed from the waist down. At the time Mike was a junior at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, where he played on the lacrosse team while majoring in Business. After graduation he planned to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming an FBI agent. On that day his dreams were crushed. Some doctors told him he would never walk again and that he would have to go through extensive rehabilitation.
Fast forward eight years later and Mike has found his calling - basketball.
How could someone who is paralyzed play basketball? With the help of two wheels, a chair, and a ton of heart, Mike found a passion for wheelchair basketball. While rehabbing from his injury, Mike's therapist brought him to a basketball game because he thought it would be something Mike would enjoy. The game was between the Magee Sixers Spokesmen, the Philadelphia 76ers sponsored wheelchair basketball team, and a group of therapists playing in wheelchairs from the rehabilitation center.
"From that moment I knew I wanted to play on the team," Mike said. The next year Mike played on the therapists' team, and shortly after he joined the Magee Spokesmen, a member team of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
"Wheelchair basketball gave me my edge back," Mike said. "I wasn't depressed anymore, because I was able to have that competitiveness back in my life."
Mike would play for the Spokesmen for one year before heading off to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania to get his master's in Rehabilitation Counseling. At Edinboro Mike became the star player on the school's wheelchair basketball team. He was named second-team All-American for the 2005/06 season and an Academic All-American in 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons. Mike considers his All-American selection the most rewarding honor he has ever received.
"It was such an honor, because I never gave up. I never stopped trying. My family helped me through it all along. They were so proud of me." said Mike.
After playing three years at Edinboro, Mike graduated in May 2007 with his master's and a new outlook on life. He now works for the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation of Pennsylvania where he helps others with disabilities find jobs.
"Whether it's young people or people who are newly injured, I help them find the resources to succeed so that they can have a normal life as well," said Mike.
Mike said that while he was rehabbing he talked to kids with spinal cord injuries and helped them cope with their situations. He found it enjoyable to help others, especially young children. When he went back to school for his master's it was a no-brainer to go into Rehabilitation Counseling.
Although Mike started to work full time, he still wanted to play basketball. He rejoined the Magee Sixers Spokesmen this season and was named team captain. So far it has paid off for the team, as they are ranked 8th nationally. Mike credits the team's success to having experienced players on the roster.
"We aren't afraid to share our opinions to make each other better and the team better. As a team captain I want to make everyone around me a better player," said Mike.
Not only has he made his teammates better, but Mike has been pretty impressive himself, averaging close to 20 points a game. His performance this season enabled him to be named to the NWBA's All-Star team. The game will be a part of the NBA's All-Star festivities that are being held in New Orleans.
"It's a tremendous honor to be named an All-Star and to represent Philly and wheelchair sports. There are a lot of great players going to the game, so it's an honor to be able to get the chance to play with some of those guys."
In April, Mike will try out for the U.S. Paralympics team where he hopes to compete in the Paralympics being held in Beijing this summer. Over 40 people will compete for right to be elected to one of 12 spots on the team. Mike says that if he makes the team, it will be the greatest accomplishment of his life.
"I want to do this not only for myself, but for my family and friends who have supported me through all these years I was injured," said Mike.
Despite being dealt a tough hand, Mike has no regrets. "I never ever thought I would be here, but things happen for a reason, there isn't much you can do to change it." Mike said he looks at his accident completely different now. He said it has enabled him to do things he never dreamed of, like traveling all over the world, meeting hundreds of people, and being in a position to help others.
"Now others can follow my footsteps and know they can come back too. My advice to newly injured people is that it's NOT OVER. Never give up. You can do whatever you want too, even with a disability. Don't let it beat you or give you an excuse to quit."
Mike said he lives by a simple motto "Whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." Mike is living proof of that. He didn't let his injury beat him; it only fueled his desire to be a better person and to help others.
Maybe Mike Looney's reality isn't so bad after all. He is a 28-year-old filled with aspirations, hopes, and dreams. He loves his job and the passion wheelchair basketball brings out in him. He's active, energetic, and full of life.
The world is truly his.