Jaya Mattes loves playing basketball. He’s been playing since first grade and is excelling in Agnes Stewart Middle School’s sixth-grade team. In his off-time, he practices with buddies and plays sports games on his Xbox. His teammates call him “tough,” and his coach says he “works his butt off.”
All this athletic success – from the seat of a wheelchair.
Jaya is paraplegic as a result of caudal regression syndrome, spina bifida and other conditions. In his 11-year lifetime, he has undergone 27 surgeries. This December, his family is celebrating one year surgery-free.
Now that Jaya is in middle school, he wants to continue developing his passion for basketball on a league team. This situation – a passionate, experienced student in a wheelchair joining the team – is unprecedented in the middle school sports collaboration between Springfield Public Schools and Willamalane Park and Recreation District.
Tracy Kribs, inclusion and adaptive recreation supervisor at Willamalane, is in charge of making sure that anyone in the district experiencing disability can access Willamalane’s programs. Kribs works with youth on an individual basis to evaluate the best way to include them in activities.
“The fact that Jaya has a history of playing, a skill set to be able to be safe on the court, and has participated in physical education in the school district, made the transition to him being on the team that much easier,” said Kribs. “We want everybody to access our programs, period. And we’re going to work with our community to make that happen.”
Jaya has inspired Kribs and the Willamalane inclusion team to engineer a wheelchair exhibition game on Dec. 14 at Willamalane Center. “We just thought it would be fun,” Kribs said. “We’d like to give Jaya’s teammates the chance to see the game from his perspective.”
The athletes used wheelchairs that Willamalane has obtained through their partnership with Athletes in Motion, a free, all-ages program that encourages wheelchair activities. This will be Willamalane’s first youth wheelchair basketball game, and Kribs says that while it is not typical, it is an important offering.
Jaya thinks it will be a challenge for his teammates to learn how to navigate in a wheelchair. His advice to his teammates is to “just play around with it” to develop familiarity with the chair.
Kristi Mattes, Jaya’s mom, thinks that the exhibition will be “so much fun. I think his teammates will gain a whole new appreciation,” she said. “If they think it’s easier for him because he just has to push instead of run, they’ll learn how many muscles you need to use for that.”
At home, Jaya “is expected to do chores and contribute like the other kids are,” said Mattes. But she has needed to advocate for him to the outside world. She has challenged barriers for him his whole life, from his desire to participate in school activities and sports teams like kids of typical ability, to having his paralyzed legs amputated to give him the chance to walk with prosthetics.
“Kids don’t think twice about it,” Mattes said. “They look him over and say, ‘OK,’ then start playing. It’s the adults who struggle and put limitations on our kids.”
Jaya’s coach, Brandon Benedick, has coached with Willamalane for eight years – since he was a freshman in high school. This is his first time coaching an athlete in a wheelchair.
Benedict said there were some initial challenges, including safety considerations. “But we’re having a great time. The team is doing a great job and we’re having a lot of fun,” he said.
Benedick said Jaya is a great asset to the team. “Some of the kids, this is their first time playing,” he said. “Jaya knows a lot about the game. There’s no having to teach fundamentals to him. As soon as he came in here, he picked up the ball and was gone.”
Benedick said more experienced students like Jaya make his job easy “because it’s like having multiple coaches out here.”
“The kids are great with [Jaya],” Benedick said. “They know how to deal with his situation and what he’s capable of. When they play basketball at lunch, they’re playing with him.”
Thomas Graves, 11, says that their competitors are sometimes surprised or taken aback when they see Jaya on the court. “He actually sets a good screen without knowing it,” Graves said. “I treat him with the same mentality as the other players.”
Graves and Jaya have been playing together for several years, and in that time Graves has learned an important lesson from Jaya: “You need to accept people for who they are, because they might just be better than you,” he said.
Between now and next year, when Jaya will move on to the seventh- and eighth-grade league, Kristi Mattes is giving Jaya a big decision to make: “He’s deciding if he wants to walk again with his prosthetics,” she said. He used them for a short time, she said, but his hips became too contracted. To use prosthetics again, doctors will have to break his femurs and realign them.
“I’ve left the decision to him because it’s not medically necessary,” she said. “It just depends on how badly he wants to walk, which he really loves doing.”
Jaya’s story inspires everyone he comes in contact with. His mom admires that “he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He never gets angry or asks ‘why,’ ” she said. When he goes out in public, Jaya often encounters curious toddlers who want to touch his chair. Jaya and his mom are encouraging, because his chair is “not scary, it’s not a bad or negative thing, it’s just his way of getting around,” she said.
His coach Brandon Benedick has learned that “he doesn’t act different from anyone else, and he doesn’t expect anyone to treat him any differently,” he said. “He is the definition of the most inspirational player – he’s one of the coolest kids in the world.”
Jaya recognizes that people regard him as an inspiration and says that “it feels good. I feel a lot of support to try new things.”
At the end of the day, Jaya just wants to enjoy his favorite game and encourage good sportsmanship. “Even if you’re playing someone you don’t want to play with, or you aren’t very good yet, I want you to just keep trying and have fun,” Jaya said.