A few years ago, I came back to the gym where I’ve played pickup basketball my whole life – the Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island – and saw a friend I’d known for decades in a wheelchair.
Mike Schiller had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“We thought he had a back problem,” said his son, Marcus. “So he went and got back surgery, and our impression was, that was gonna fix everything.”
Surgery relieved the pain, but not the symptoms.
In fact, Mike would soon be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a nerve-destroying disease that, as of today, has no cure.
Leaving the doctor’s office with his wife Dawn was heartbreaking.
PHOTOS: Seattle man competes in World Maccabiah Games in Israel
“We were driving away,” said Mike, “and I was in tears, Dawn was in tears, and we had to share it with our kids.”
The physical deterioration with MS is gradual and unrelenting, and it has robbed Mike of almost all the feeling in the left side of his body. And yet, overcoming his ego proved even harder than overcoming his immobility.
“He was willing at that point to look (at wheelchairs),” said his wife, Dawn, “but he wasn’t willing to get into a chair.”
Mike says the turning point was a slip at an airport.
“I can tell you, Steve, the lowest point for me – the absolute lowest, and I’ll never forget it. I was in an airport, running behind for a flight, and I’m not moving well. And I took a spill and I literally, I go over, my backpack goes flying, I’m flat on my face. And all of a sudden, there’s a crowd of people trying to help me up. All I wanted to say was get the heck off of me, leave me alone.”
For a gym rat, not being able to run and gun is bad enough. For a gym rat with a hoops-loving son, it is worse.
“It’s still hard for me,” Mike said. “Marcus doesn’t remember, I’m gonna get teary-eyed here, but he remembers me playing basketball. And it hurts a little bit to know that he never got to see that part of me.”
“It’s been hard,” Marcus said. “Just because, I know if I was in his shoes, that’d be the hardest thing for me, not being able to play sports with my kid. And it’s hard also, also for me, not being able to play with him.”
Two years ago, his wife finally convinced Mike to try out wheelchair basketball. And wouldn’t you know it … the moment he started bleeding at a practice was the moment he started believing in his game.
“Avoiding collisions is hard. My first, good wipeout, I was going as fast as I could. I caught the ball, and the defender had position, and I couldn’t stop. I literally plowed right into his wheel. And you’re strapped in. So my chair went over, my head split open, got a bunch of stitches. It was my first major injury, there’s a pool of blood on the ground, and everybody around me is all freaked out. And I remember thinking, I’m a friggin athlete. I’m competing. I felt like this is awesome. I’m really playing basketball again.
Just a year later, Mike Schiller is competing for Team USA in the World Maccabiah Games in Israel – essentially, the Jewish Olympics.
Some 10,000 athletes are competing from 80 countries – making it the third-largest sporting event in the world (behind the Olympics and the Pan-American Games).
Mark Spitz and Kerri Strug are among past participants for Team USA, and Mike says it’s a thrill to be representing the red, white and blue.
His life is different than he imagined. The on-court dynamic that defines so many father-son relationships has in some ways been reversed.
“When Michael doesn’t push himself, Marcus holds him accountable,” says Dawn. “It’s like, ‘Sorry, you don’t get any free pass just because you’re in a wheelchair.’”
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned from watching him is how to face adversity head on,” said Marcus. “It’s really amazing… that’s left a big impact on me. He’s been able to leverage his adversity. He’s taken his MS, which his hard for people to deal with, and hard to live a normal life – but he’s done it with a healthy attitude.”
“It wasn’t a matter of just saying, oh, I’ve got MS, my life is over, I’m giving up,” Mike said. “We continue to fight. I want them to see, that even with basketball, that I’m not giving up. I’m continuing to fight.”