Pro athletes unite to bring wheelchair basketball and healing to those trapped in war

Jess Markt, 42, was a track-and-field athlete on the cusp of big things at the University of Portland when at age 19, just days away from starting his sophomore year, a horrific car accident left him a paraplegic.

“My initial assumption was that my athletic career was over. I didn’t know anything about adaptive sports or athletics at the time. I thought playing basketball in a different way than I had before, without the running and the jumping, wouldn’t be so fun,” Markt told Fox News. “But then when I had that opportunity to play for the first time, I realized how much I had missed it. It really completed my rehabilitation.”

A car accident at 19 left Jess Markt a paraplegic
(Courtesy ICRC)

Meanwhile, more than 8,500 miles away, Malat Wei, now 25, was a tiny toddler who had been struck down with polio in his home country, now South Sudan, rendering him without the use of his legs. For 10 years he lived with his family in a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia as war ravished his homeland.

“When I was growing up I was playing soccer with my hands, with the kids in the village just to get along with them. I would put some shoes on my hands and go out there and kick the ball with my hands,” Wei recalled. “When I was 12 I came with my family to the United States and this is where I found my love of sports.”

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His new Texas life comprised of afternoons at the park with his school friends – where he shot hoops from a big hospital chair – coupled with nights spent watching videos of the then-rising NBA star LeBron James.

Until one day someone mentioned the local wheelchair basketball league, piquing Wei’s interest. He enlisted help from a member of his church to sign up and Wei’s newfound passion – and eventual profession – was born.

Despite being from radically different worlds and finding common ground with a mutual fervor for hoops and bounces, the lives of Markt and Wei connected a few years ago in the wheelchair basketball arena.

“At the beginning of 2017, I had the opportunity to go to Juba, South Sudan for the first time and worked with a group of brand new players and had this amazing experience working with them. Malat saw that video on Facebook and reached out and said he was originally from South Sudan and had a dream of bringing this to (his) countrymen,” Markt said. “I said we will see what we can do.”

Jess Markt and Malat Wei, both pro wheelchair basketballers in the U.S, returned to coach players in South Sudan

Jess Markt and Malat Wei, both pro wheelchair basketballers in the U.S, returned to coach players in South Sudan
(Fox News)

And finally last November, some 18 months after their first exchange, that is exactly what they did. The two returned to the country to coach some 60 players, including South Sudan’s first female player, and paved the way for setting up a future national league.

“That was my first time being back there and the experience was just so indescribable,” Malat enthused. “Those athletes when I saw them out there reminded me of what I had been through… to come to America, work hard, learn to speak English and then go home and see how far I had come and do something positive for the community and for the country.”

Moreover, their unprecedented journey is the subject of a new documentary from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) entitled “No Limits.”

Players in South Sudan find hope and healing in wheelchair basketball

Players in South Sudan find hope and healing in wheelchair basketball
(Courtesy ICRC)

Each of the players who joined Markt and Wei on the Juba courts had a different, heart-wrenching story to share. Some lost limbs when bullets careened through their bodies having been caught in the crossfire of warring parties over the course of two decades of war, some stepped on a landmine, others were paralyzed by accidents and disease. More than 400,000 people in South Sudan are estimated to be living with disabilities, and for too long have been cast into the shadows of isolation, social stigma and stolen dreams.

But when that ball reaches their fingertips, there is no sense of anger or self-pity — only of sweat and a determination to win.

“All of a sudden when we are in Juba, and we are having a tournament, people are coming and filling the stands and watching these people play,” Markt continued. “And after a few minutes, the wheelchairs disappear and they are just watching these incredible athletes do really amazing things. It really changes how they think about these people.”

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In July 2011, South Sudan – with much backing from the U.S. and the United Nations – splintered from the long conflict-riddled Sudan to jubilantly be declared the world’s newest nation. And within just a couple of weeks, the first wheelchair basketball team was established. However, at the end of 2013, the country descended again into bitter chaos, making the need for sports to play an ever more pertinent role.

Malat Wei contracted polio at the age of three in living in a small village outside of Juba, South Sudan.

Malat Wei contracted polio at the age of three in living in a small village outside of Juba, South Sudan.
(Courtesy ICRC)

But for both Markt and Wei, bringing wheelchair basketball to some of the most far-flung corners of the earth spawns something far deeper than only athletic prowess — it is something of a vector for participants to realize their potential in all walks of life.

“I don’t think I really understood until I started working in all these different places, just how marginalized people with disabilities are in countries that are low-income and dealing especially with war and conflict,” Markt, who for more than a decade has worked in conflict zones from Afghanistan to Cambodia to South Sudan, in conjunction with the ICRC, noted.

“It’s not that they are being ostracized necessarily, but they are being held back and it’s assumed that they won’t have an active role in their own lives or lives of their families. What we have seen is that wheelchair basketball gives them an identity outside of being a disabled person,” he said.

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And according to Wei, the simple bounce of a ball and sense of sportsmanship has a ripple effect too powerful to articulate.

The healing power of wheelchair basketball transcends into all walks of life for many of the participants and is the subject of a new ICRC documentary

The healing power of wheelchair basketball transcends into all walks of life for many of the participants and is the subject of a new ICRC documentary
(Courtesy ICRC)

“Wheelchair basketball took me to places I never ever would have thought of — for example, I went to France to play professionally. We just want to spread awareness and give plyers hope and purpose,” Wei said. “To give them that kind of confidence, that they can go out there into the community and represent themselves and know that they are actually athletes who can do something for their countries.”