US brothers Peter and Aaron Berry turn tragedy into wheelchair basketball glory

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Brothers Peter and Aaron Berry’s lives changed irrevocably on the Fourth of July weekend in 2011. Then nine and eight years old, they were on their way home to Houston from a road trip to Colorado with their parents Josh and Robin and younger sister Willa, when a distracted driver on the highway swerved into the opposite lane and crashed head-on into their minivan.

Josh and Robin were killed. Willa came away with some broken bones, but Peter and Aaron suffered severe injuries, including to the T10 vertebrae in the middle of their spines, leaving them paralyzed from the waist down. Aaron also suffered a serious neck injury.

The brothers received top-notch medical and rehabilitative care and moved in with their aunt, uncle, and cousins. They learned to adapt to their new situation and returned to Jewish day school and their friends. They also started a nonprofit organization to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.

Critically, they discovered that they didn’t have to give up their love of athletics. They were introduced to adapted (also called adaptive) sports, and particularly to wheelchair basketball.

“And the rest is history,” said Aaron, now 20 and studying marketing management and music production. He’ll enter his junior year in college this fall.

Today the brothers are members of the powerhouse University of Alabama team, which won the 2023 men’s intercollegiate National Wheelchair Basketball Association championship.

Peter, 21, and a year ahead of this brother in school, is studying marketing with a minor in communications and is preparing to apply to law school. He aspires to play wheelchair basketball in Europe, too.

“After losing our ability to walk, wheelchair basketball gave us back that outlet for the natural aggression and speed you get with contact sports. Getting in a sports chair feels very liberating,” said Peter.

Both young men were awarded full sports scholarships to their university.

“And we’re really excited that Willa will be joining us here in the fall as a pre-med student,” Aaron said.

Peter was a member of the US wheelchair basketball team that played in the Maccabiah Games in Israel in the summer of 2017. Then a high school student, he was by far the youngest member of the team.

“It was such an incredible experience. The first part of the trip was touring around the country. We traveled with members of the able-bodied tennis, wrestling, and basketball teams. That was good because they could carry our wheelchairs over the cobblestones,” Peter recalled.

The brothers missed the 2021 Maccabiah Games because they were playing for the Under 23 United States national team in a tournament in Thailand.

They hope to make it to Israel next time, which would afford them the rare opportunity to be among other Jewish able-bodied athletes and para-athletes.

“There are hardly any Jewish wheelchair basketball players,” noted Aaron, who wears a chai necklace.

The brothers attribute their resilience and strong Jewish identities to their late parents, who were active members of the local Jewish community as well as the wider Houston community.

“Our parents gave us our foundation and gifted us with a great mindset and a good head on our shoulders. It’s because of them that we have been able to navigate our situation so beautifully, with all the help we received,” Peter said.

“I believe my siblings and I are making them proud and continuing their legacy.”

The following is a conversation between The Times of Israel and Peter and Aaron Berry, edited for brevity.

The Times of Israel: How did wheelchair basketball end up being your sport?

Aaron: When we were in Shriners in Chicago [for rehabilitation] after our accident we were introduced to the sport. We would have recreation once a week when we would get in these sports chairs and we would play different sports, like baseball, dodgeball, and basketball. The basketball kind of just clicked for us.  When we got back to Houston, our uncle found out about a tournament that was going on at a multipurpose center and we decided to just go check it out. We asked if we could get involved and the rest is history. We started joining in every Tuesday from then on. It became our way to get back into sports and we grew more competitive and got better at it.  Eventually, we got our own customized sports wheelchairs.

Peter Berry (right) plays wheelchair basketball for the University of Alabama. (Courtesy of the University of Alabama Adapted Athletics)

What do you specifically like about basketball?

Aaron: For me, it’s the physicality of the sport. Wheelchair basketball is so different from able-bodied basketball. The chairs are ramming head on and we’re going pretty fast. People are flipping over. I’ve had my hands run over and my head hit by a chair while on the ground. It’s a very physical and intense sport, but I I love it.

Peter: I would say it’s basketball with a mix of NASCAR and football, so there’s a lot of contact. It’s a very fast-paced game and you have to make a lot of snap decisions. But it’s also a dance and very technical. You have to do the fundamentals perfectly to succeed. You can’t be all over the place.

You were involved in sports as kids before the accident. Was taking up wheelchair basketball a way of regaining in part what you lost?

Peter: I think the reason for our involvement was because, after the accident, the foundation upon which our lives were built was kind of pulled right out from beneath us. We were completely lost from emotional, spiritual, and physical standpoints. Every sense of life was going to be altered. Basketball helped in that transition at least from an athletic and physical standpoint.

After losing our ability to walk, wheelchair basketball gave us back that outlet for the natural aggression and speed you get with contact sports. Getting in a sports chair feels very liberating. You’re not confined in this day [wheel]chair where the turns are slower and you’re not moving as fast. In those ball chairs, you can really get going and hit people so that it kind of gave us back that ability, that sense of freedom and movement.

Aaron Berry (center) plays wheelchair basketball for the University of Alabama. (Courtesy of the University of Alabama Adapted Athletics)

How does wheelchair basketball work? Is the court the same size and are the hoops the usual height? Is the scoring system the same?

Aaron: Yes, everything is basically the same. The court is the same size and the goals are 10 feet high. The only difference between able-bodied basketball and wheelchair basketball is that there’s no double dribble in wheelchair basketball… In stand-up basketball, if you take more than two steps dribbling it is a travel, and in wheelchair basketball, if you touch your wheels more than twice while dribbling, it’s a travel… With wheelchair basketball, there’s a little more technicality to it like with the back foul, or if you rear-end someone with your wheelchair or clip the back of their wheel while they’re moving, it’s a hook.

I understand that in wheelchair basketball players are assigned one of eight classifications from 1 to 4.5 based on disability level. How does that work?

Peter: Players with a lower classification or point value are generally expected to steal [the ball] more and get the [higher classification] guys in the paint. The guys with a higher classification are generally expected to score the ball and maybe handle the ball more often.

Aaron: The classifications are determined based on how much torso  control you have. If you are classified as a 1, you would have the least control. If you are a 4.5 then you would be a single amputee, for instance, with full upper body control and the ability to rotate and lean in all directions. Players have disabilities ranging from single-foot amputations all the way to quadriplegia. A five-person lineup cannot exceed 14 points to make it fair for opposing teams. Peter is classified as a 2 and I am a 1.5 as a result of my neck injury.

Peter Berry with the ball as he plays wheelchair basketball for the University of Alabama. (Courtesy of the University of Alabama Adapted Athletics)

Peter: You see everything in wheelchair basketball — every story, background, and disability. That’s been one of my favorite parts about being involved. I loved going to watch Nationals as I was growing up because I was surrounded by people who could identify with my story and who had a story to tell and that was a great source of inspiration for me just to keep going in my daily life. Some of the people who have affected me most are the ones I met in Israel. I became particularly good friends with [terror victim and para-athlete] Asael Shabo. I have been trying to find an opportunity to return to Israel to see him.

You guys are putting in 20-25 hours per week in terms of weight lifting, conditioning, and playing. How does this affect your health as paraplegics?

Peter: You’re balancing intense athletics with school and life, so there is a higher probability to become completely worn down, which can lead to burnout and poor mental health. You have to find pockets of free time during the year outside of basketball and outside of school and personal stuff so that can kind of reset and allow yourself to keep going.

Aaron: We need to be more careful than the average able-bodied athlete. For example, we have to worry about getting pressure sores. If we have a bad fall and hurt our knee or foot, we can’t feel it. So we have to know our body very well to feel for the spasms or to see swelling or to notice color changes in our lower body.

Peter: Fortunately we were taught how to take care of ourselves very well and stay in good shape. When we show up on the court, there’s so much work that has gone on behind the scenes that nobody knows about. That goes for all of us in this program and every person with a disability. People have no clue about the tasks we have to accomplish to make sure we can show up. It doesn’t overtake your life. But it definitely requires more energy and focus than for our able-bodied counterparts.

Has your going through all of this together made it easier?

Peter: It’s definitely been a pretty unique experience. I think I’m one of the few people who has someone who shares all the exact same experiences. I’m very grateful to have Aaron.

Aaron: There are always going to be things we’re gonna have to do a little bit differently with a spinal cord injury and being in a chair. Not every place in the world is ADA-accessible. There are some times when it can get a bit bothersome. But for the most part, we’re very independent and we’ve learned to adapt and thrive. There are always going to be some things that take a little extra time or that we have to do differently, and it’s just the way life is.

Peter: As Aaron said, the world does not cater to disability. We do the best we can to adapt to the things around us. But the reality is we have different needs, and those needs are not always going to be easy to navigate. But in the process and amid the chaos and embarrassment, we’re fortifying a stronger mindset. As I said in an interview I gave to Sports Illustrated, I’m not living to walk again. I mean, it sucks at times. That goes without saying. But it’s doable and we have found a way to make it work, and I’m grateful for it.

Aaron Berry plays wheelchair basketball for the University of Alabama. (Courtesy of the University of Alabama Adapted Athletics)

Peter, you characterized the chance to tell me your and Aaron’s story as “sacred.” Why did you use that word?

Peter: I used “sacred” intentionally because that’s how I feel about it. Our story is so special to us. It’s something that we went through and a big reason why we’re here and how we got here — and it was not an easy journey and or always easy to share. Now, it’s become less difficult and the more we’ve done it over time, the more I understand that it is a source of strength for a lot of people who find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning.

Does God come into this at all?

Peter: I struggled for a long time with the question of why. I thought the statement that everything happens for a reason was just a way to appease people and keep them going. Eventually, I became more accepting of the fact that you don’t need a why all the time and that sometimes there isn’t an answer for everything. But you make the most out of the cards that you’re dealt, of the situation that God has put in front of you, and the challenges that He has set in your path. It has taken a lot of blood, sweat, and tears but I think Aaron and I are doing that, and we are thriving.

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