Jeremy Evans Is Doing His Thing At Edinboro
We have all heard it. Perseverance is crucial to success. It is not how many times you fall; it is how quickly you get back up.
But here is the catch - Jeremy Evans has always been on his feet. Despite leg braces and a limp, he laced up and ran up and down the basketball court in squeaky orthopedic shoes. Getting up and standing up posed no problem. The hardest thing Jeremy ever did required him to sit down.
“I don’t remember the exact moment I started playing basketball,” Jeremy, 26, said. “The first time I touched a ball was probably when I was four or five at the YMCA. My dad would take me there and I used to watch my older brother play.”
Jeremy’s young, gangly limbs maneuvered awkwardly on the hardwood heaving the ball over the rim. The satisfaction of the ball going through the hoop would never grow old.
His first taste of organized, recreational basketball came at age five at an Attleboro, Massachusetts YMCA. Up to that point, experts doubted how involved he would be in able-bodied athletics.
“I was born with spina bifida,” Jeremy said. “My parents knew I had the disability before I was born, but nobody knew how much it would really affect my life.”
The disability could have been as severe as Jeremy not being able to walk, let alone run or shoot hoops.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spina bifida affects approximately 1400 babies born in the United States each year. Meaning “split spine,” it’s a neural tube defect that occurs when the spinal column does not close all the way. It impacts individuals differently, depending upon the size and location of the opening on the spine.
Jeremy saw many specialists and endured multiple surgeries from birth. When he was brought home from the hospital with both legs in casts, his mother and father explained to their two older children that their little brother needed extra attention. Everyone had to be careful around Jeremy.
Little Jeremy did not get the memo. He rolled around their home, tactfully maneuvering with the casts.
“Doctors weren’t very positive about his mobility, but when they said ‘he probably wouldn’t,’ Jeremy would,” Vanessa Evans, Jeremy’s mother, said bluntly. “So, we let him.”
Jeremy went from casts to braces to a walker, never staying still. He recovered from his surgeries and learned to ride a bike, swim, ski, and play basketball.
“He did well in school, too,” Vanessa said. “Especially in math, which experts said he would have comprehensive problems with. He learned piano and saxophone and still pursues his musical abilities, along with writing.
“Jeremy always was a fighter,” his mother said. “In his upbringing, we treated him just like his other two siblings.”
Jeremy did chores and got his homework done on time. If his siblings jumped on the couch, Jeremy jumped on the couch. His brother called him names and his sister pushed his buttons, fulfilling their duties as older siblings.
6-year-old Jeremy bounced the ball too high as he made his way to the rim at the Y. He bent his knees and raised the ball over his head. Jeremy launched it from his shoulder as he jumped. Braces squeaked in his shoes when he landed. The ball flailed toward the rim and then returned to the hardwood much too soon. He ran after his air ball miss and reset for another shot.
Quest for a Jersey
Jeremy got his money’s worth out of his YMCA membership, working on his jump shot constantly. Air balls were replaced by swishes. His many hours spent on the court took a toll on his leg braces.
“Jeremy went through braces like crazy,” Vanessa said. “His orthopedic appliance specialist used Jeremy to test new products in braces because he snapped them constantly. When they would see us coming, they’d say, ‘Oh no…he broke another one.’
“They couldn’t make (braces) strong enough for him,” Vanessa said. “They tried strapping him into them, putting steel rods in the backs of them, and using carbon material. Nothing lasted because he stayed so active.
“We had to duct tape his braces at times just to keep them usable,” she said.
“It’s hard to find shoes to fit my braces,” Jeremy said. “They squeak when I run.”
So, not only was he slow, but they could hear him coming.
Jeremy attended Foxborough Regional Charter School (FRCS) from 4th-12th grade, but it did not have elementary school teams. He, therefore, played basketball for another local grade school.
“Grade school basketball was, honestly, my best basketball experience,” Jeremy said. “The coach gave me fair playing time. I knew he had confidence in me because he played me at point guard . . . and because I started the majority of the time which was a big deal to me. We went on to win the championship in 8th grade which was also a big deal being part of that team with actual playing time and a coach that believed in me."
“What was difficult about this time was my bladder and bowel issues because of my spina bifida,” Jeremy said. “I still deal with them today, but leaving class in the 4th grade because I had to go to the bathroom in the nurse’s office – it was just one more thing that made me stick out.
“I would tell my friends I had to go take medicine,” Jeremy said. “I would tell them anything other than what was actually the case.”
But Jeremy did not think about broken braces or his bladder and bowels when he was playing basketball.
“Basketball was my rock,” Jeremy said. “It made me normal.”
Jeremy’s high school years were marked not only by trying out new orthopedic braces, but trying out for the basketball team.
His first tryout came in 9th grade for FRCS' varsity team.
Why? According to the coach, lack of experience,
“The coach tried to use my lack of experience as a reason to cut me, but I had more experience playing than other guys,” Jeremy said.
To try to get that alleged missing experience, Jeremy tried out for an AAU team.
Like he had done for the previous ten years, Jeremy squeaked up and down the court at team tryouts. Though he moved slower than the other boys, muscle memory from hours of practice took over as he dribbled the ball through cone drills. Jeremy held his follow through as he sank jump shots.
But the AAU coach did not or could not notice Jeremy’s ball handling skills or his pull-up jumper. All the coach could see were broken leg braces.
“The coach approached me and my dad after tryouts,” Jeremy said. “He said he wanted me on the team, but he couldn’t guarantee any playing time.
“I’d have to earn playing time,” Jeremy said. “I expected that.”
Jeremy just wanted an opportunity.
He went to practices and kept up with his teammates. He finished drills, got extra shots up, and continued breaking braces.
Jeremy got a dose of reality when he walked into the gym for their first AAU tournament. Bouncing basketballs echoed through the fieldhouse as multiple games were played simultaneously. His team gathered before their first contest.
His coach went over the game plan and passed out uniforms. He handed them out one by one. Jeremy shifted his weight, side to side. His braces squeaked in his shoes as he was excited to get an opportunity to see the floor, eager to show the coach who did not want him on the roster that he could play.
The last uniform slipped over the head of a teammate. Jeremy stood still. His shoes fell silent. His heart dropped.
Jeremy did not get a jersey.
He sat on the bench in disbelief, trying to cheer on his “team.” He practiced as hard as anyone and was technically on the team, but in his coach’s eyes, Jeremy did not fit the criteria to be on the court.
Jeremy’s parents did not treat him differently due to his disability. They made sure no one else did either.
“My dad convinced (the coach) to give me a real chance,” Jeremy said. “He got me a jersey, anyway.”
“I had to speak with the coach very firmly to make sure Jeremy received some playing time,” Marcus Evans, Jeremy’s father, explained.
Jeremy tucked in his jersey as he headed to the scorers’ table during a game. He high-fived the teammate he replaced and got into a defensive position. He would prove to the coach he deserved to be playing from the moment he stepped on the court.
The other team brought the ball down the floor. Jeremy stepped into a passing lane and stole the ball. Despite the squeaks, he drove the ball hard to the bucket in the open court. Applause and chest bumps followed his steal and lay-up.
That moment of glory was not rewarded with more playing time. At the next horn, his coach subbed Jeremy out of the game. Jeremy sat back down, having barely broken a sweat.
“I would do good things,” Jeremy said. “I just never got consistent playing time.”
"I remember my dad and I confronting him about it at the next practice and expressing that I didn't want to continue playing for him if this is how it was going to be. I remember him saying 'Ok, good luck guys,' and being completely unfazed."
Jeremy would get another shot at playing time during his sophomore year when he again tried out for the Foxborough Regional Charter School team.
Once again, Jeremy had a chance to show off his ability to handle the ball and score. Like the previous year, he went through drills, ran up and down the court, and waited for his name to be called.
Jeremy’s dad, Marcus, said that the other players trying out complimented Jeremy’s skills and fully expected him to be on the team. Marcus expected him to be on the team.
But their voices did not matter. Only one voice mattered. The head coach finalized the roster at the end of tryouts. He would announce those who made the team in front of everyone who tried out.
Hushed celebrations scattered throughout the gym as the coach called a player’s name. Those muted celebrations fell silent when they caught Jeremy’s eyes.
The coach did not call Jeremy’s name.
“Many of his teammates were surprised and discouraged that (Jeremy) did not make (the team),” Marcus said.
Jeremy spoke to the coach about it. "He said it was because of 'grades', although my grades were fine. When I proved that to him, he still wouldn't allow me on the team."
That's when my dad spoke with him.
It was clear to Jeremy that the difference between himself and other players was that he had braces on his legs.
Jeremy’s braces, broken or not, made him stick out. Jeremy could hide bladder and bowel issues, but he could not hide his supportive braces.
Despite being cut multiple times, Jeremy never lost his love for the game.
“It’s just my thing,” he said.
Instead of accepting his fate and allowing his setbacks to end his playing days, Jeremy’s passion for basketball was rigorously rejuvenated.
His desire to play basketball was growing more intense. His passion for the game began to set his soul on fire. Being cut from teams and doubted by coaches fanned those flames.
Fortunately, Jeremy could not have two bigger or more supportive fans than his parents.
“After a detailed conversation with the coach, he decided that Jeremy would be on the roster,” Marcus said.
Mr. Evans’ persuasiveness clearly made an impact. The fact that Jeremy used leg braces no longer bothered the coach. Detailed conversations can be quite convincing.
Now on the team, Jeremy focused on being a good teammate and playing to his strengths, but he was always reminded of being different. Leg braces and bowel issues cannot be “normal.”
At the end of one practice, the team lined up for sprints. Everyone would run the length of the floor, touch the baseline, then come back. A simple task, but when Jeremy crossed the finish line, he was met with high praise. The entire team clapped and whooped it up for him.
Jeremy wanted no part in that type of celebration. He had finished the sprints dead last.
Jeremy saw sporadic playing minutes at the end of a few games that season. In the fourth quarter of one game, the team set up a play for him. Jeremy ran the baseline and spotted up for a 3-pointer from the corner. The point guard swung the ball to Jeremy. He caught it in rhythm and rose into his shot.
Jeremy let the ball roll off his fingers and he held his follow through like he had practiced for years at the Y. His shoes squeaked when he landed. All heads turned to watch the flight of the ball.
The crowd went wild. His teammates went wild. The boy with spina bifida had just hit a big shot in a stand-up basketball game. A storybook scene played out as Jeremy ran back on defense.
But Jeremy just ran back on defense. He was not celebrating.
“We were up thirty,” Jeremy said. “It wasn’t a big deal. They were pity minutes.
“I know my teammates had good intentions, but it made me stick out even more, and I just wanted to be a player,” Jeremy said.
What had been a blinder to his disability turned into a magnifying glass.
Jeremy graduated from high school and left basketball behind, dissatisfied with his experience. The basketball chapter of his life was seemingly closed, forever.
Life Without Basketball
Jeremy would have to face the turmoil of his early 20s without a jersey once again.
Jeremy studied engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and to an outsider, it may have seemed he was thriving. Jeremy then became a research and design engineer for a 3D printing project focused on configuring a shoe for people with orthopedic difficulties.
He interned with The Institute for Human Centered Design, hoping to work on a different footwear design project for people with disabilities.
His goal – to design something less squeaky.
Despite focusing on school and work opportunities, Jeremy knew his life was missing something. Jeremy was missing his “thing.”
Jeremy had nothing to train for and no organized practice schedule. Free time turned into wasted time.
“I did what most college kids do,” Jeremy said. “I partied. My grades slipped. I stressed about my relationships.
“The scariest part about not playing basketball was it felt like my time competing was over. It was a complete identity crisis.”
Jeremy questioned how he could work so hard and want something so bad, only to never see it come to fruition? How could he have overcome so many challenges caused by his disability, only to look back at his time as a basketball player with emptiness?
Anxiety crippled Jeremy’s heart. The burden of hiding his health struggles and the fear of the future grew heavier each day. His friends tried to support him. His parents encouraged counseling.
“Without basketball as my rock, I hit rock bottom,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy became a mentor to children at the Spina Bifida Association. He had an immediate impact on his mentees. They helped him too.
“My experience with able-bodied sports allowed me to influence kids,” Jeremy said. “I was in the gym shooting and running around at the Spina Bifida Association. I think seeing me prompted some kids to do it, too, if they physically could.
“Some kids were just too comfortable in their chairs and needed a little encouragement to get up. I didn’t limit myself. I didn’t want others to, either.”
Helping kids get up from their chairs to play basketball was rewarding, but Jeremy found out that he may have been limiting his own playing opportunities. The Spina Bifida Association had an adaptive sports program for all participants, including mentors.
“That’s when I found wheelchair basketball,” Jeremy said. “Or, should I say, wheelchair basketball found me.”
Jeremy tried playing basketball in a wheelchair while mentoring. He was soon offered an opportunity to play in a wheelchair basketball league.
A team, a jersey, a ball… and a chair.
Jeremy knew he missed basketball. He was missing the purpose and fulfillment that comes with being on a team, but he could not see himself playing in a wheelchair. He liked the inclusivity of wheelchair basketball, but it felt like was not for him.
He had endured too much in his quest to stand, to simply just take a seat.
Playing in a wheelchair would require Jeremy to learn a new skill set. He would have to learn to push the chair while dribbling, to shoot the ball higher, and to learn the rules of wheelchair basketball.
None of which fit with what he knew himself to be.
Jeremy started to play in a few wheelchair games, without sufficient enthusiasm.
After one league game, Jeremy stood up from his chair and began to shoot around, failing to pay attention to those who could not stand.
After a few tournaments, Jeremy quit the team for multiple reasons.
“Most importantly, I was worried about losing my mobility,” Jeremy said. “I thought I would reach a point where I was too comfortable using a chair, and that I would ultimately rely on it.”
But more than that, Jeremy feared losing his sense of “normalcy.”
If the Shoe Fits
Jeremy graduated from college and continued mentoring kids impacted by spina bifida. He was very good at motivating them to be the best they could be. He inspired some to get out of their chairs, but those who could not were still inspired.
Although he was no longer in a formal league, Jeremy would still get in a wheelchair and push his way down the basketball court with some of his mentees. Arms burning, he raced down the floor, invigorated by the edge of competition, and the smiles on the others’ faces.
“My time mentoring changed my perspective,” Jeremy said. “I realized my situation wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be.”
Friends and family encouraged Jeremy to rejoin the wheelchair league again. Jeremy had the natural athleticism and the love for the game needed to be a good wheelchair player.
But Jeremy would not 100% commit to the wheelchair. He still felt he had worked his whole life to overcome playing in a chair.
“The chair made me feel like I was going to lose a sense of what it was to have a normal athletic experience,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy thought about the moments in his basketball career in which he felt different –coach’s issues with his braces; charity claps from his teammates they did not intend; pity minutes toward the end of games.
But Jeremy remembered the good moments, too. He enjoyed being part of the brotherhood of a basketball team. He recognized that basketball had instilled leadership skills and perseverance in him.
Jeremy came to the realization that the chair may not seem normal, but maybe that did not have to be a bad thing.
Wheelchair basketball could be Jeremy’s “thing.”
“I had to be realistic about how I could continue to compete and achieve my full potential,” Jeremy said.
After much reluctance, Jeremy decided to give the wheelchair league another go.
Vanessa made as big of a commitment to wheelchair basketball as Jeremy. She had been bringing him to afternoon practices and weekend games.
Marcus cheered him on.
“I was amazed at (Jeremy’s) abilities,” Marcus said. “Wheelchair basketball is more demanding and requires strength and endurance to compete.”
Jeremy’s feel for the game transitioned to the chair, but learning a new skill set took time and patience.
“Although I had a pretty good shot, I had to refine it because I was now shooting in the sitting position,” Jeremy said. “It required more strength and technique.
Mastering ball handling skills was the hardest transition from the stand-up game.
“I was good at handling the ball, but now I had to learn how to dribble and push at the same time,” Jeremy said.
“But also, (I wondered) how do I protect the ball?” Jeremy asked. “Can I dribble with one hand and push? How do I go behind the back? Crossover? Throw a fake? Euro step? What is a travel? Is that even a thing anymore?”
Questions and concerns flooded his mind, but Jeremy loved the challenge. Once he decided he would accept playing in a wheelchair, there was no turning back.
Despite having a subpar wheelchair that did not fit his body, Jeremy would practice the specific skills he would need to master for hours at a time.
Working on his shot at the Y, Jeremy pushed his chair into position and raised the ball above his head. He let it fly, holding his follow through as he had done all his life, but the ball touched nothing. Jeremy had become reacquainted with air balls.
“My shot had always been flat,” Jeremy said. “With standing, you can use your legs for power. I had to learn how to shoot the ball high, finishing my shot with my elbows above my head.”
Jeremy would chase down his every miss and reset for another shot, determined to make the next one. No longer burdened by being “normal,” Jeremy focused on being the best wheelchair basketball player he could be.
As his mentality changed, so did his opportunities.
A New Normal
“I heard about Jeremy from one of my alumni, Andy Garbarino,” said Jim Glatch, the head men’s wheelchair basketball coach at Edinboro University.
Garbarino lives in the New England area. He is a 2x National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) All-American. Garbarino was coached by Glatch in the 2011 Para Pan American Games, earning gold for the USA.
After seeing Jeremy play, Garbarino reached out to his old coach.
“Garbs told me that Jeremy was smart, athletic, and had raw talent that needed someone like me to mold,” Glatch said. “When (Garbarino) called, I didn’t hesitate to recruit Jeremy.”
Jeremy had spent his time at UMass Dartmouth studying bio-engineering. A chance to earn an MBA and play wheelchair basketball at the next level thrilled him, but he had reservations about committing.
“It was the height of COVID,” Jeremy said. “The 2020-21 season was cancelled. I didn’t see a point in going anymore – especially since my MBA program was online.”
With COVID disrupting daily life, staying at home, and earning his MBA online made a lot of sense for Jeremy. No one knew how long the pandemic would prevent athletes from competing. Putting all his energy and effort into his future career seemed logical.
But the lure of playing competitive basketball was just too tempting. Jeremy could not say no to his “thing.”
“My dad pulled me aside and told me that I needed to go,” Jeremy said. “It was my chance to continue playing competitive basketball. I had to go.
“I realized my definition of normal needed to change,” Jeremy said. “I needed to accept a new normal, not only in adaptive sports, but also in my identity.”
Jeremy officially committed to Edinboro in April of 2020. As soon as he signed his Letter of Intent, Coach Glatch put a skills packet in the mail. Jeremy had to spend his first year as a college basketball player training in a socially-distanced world.
The summer skills packet put Jeremy to the test. Every day, Jeremy would prop his phone up and film himself going through drills, working on his high release shot, practicing bounce stops and bounce spins.
He would also do laps. Not just around the court, but around the entire park. And in a wheelchair that did not fit him.