Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Disability paved path to opportunity

Johnson fast-tracked into hoops Hall of Fame

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When Joey Johnson was eight years old he learned he had a devastating hip disease, and all the child could see were doors closing.

Now, a door is opening for Johnson to walk straight into Manitoba sports history as one of the province's most accomplished athletes.

On Tuesday, the Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame announced Johnson, 38, as one of four player inductees this year. Fresh off a pro hoops career in Germany, Johnson retired just last year after winning his third Paralympic gold medal in London. He moved home to Winnipeg and started a new career at Freedom Concepts, which makes special tricycles for children with disabilities.

So he was hardly expecting a call from the hall so quickly, but there it was.

"I had no idea," he said. "This is a great honour for me... I just hope I can pave a path."

What he means by that: Johnson is the first Paralympic athlete to be inducted into the hall. As a child, he was heartbroken to realize that the damage to his hip meant that able-bodied sports were closed to him. But wheelchair basketball opened far more doors, including the ones that led to those Paralympic golds, a ticket to play at the University of Wisconsin, and a 2006 world championship.

Johnson hopes his induction will show the next generation of young athletes the path from disability to opportunity.

"Looking back on my life, I got a scholarship, I got an education because of it," he said. "I've played professionally in Australia and Europe. If I could go back, I wouldn't change a moment of my life."

Basketball Manitoba director Ross Wedlake agreed that inducting Johnson so soon after the end of his playing career was an unusual move.

"We felt he was so successful in what he had done, and he may be the most successful Manitoban basketball player ever," Wedlake said. "Because his accomplishments were so significant, we felt the time was right."

And the time was right to induct others, too: It was right for Anne Smith, who helped lead two University of Manitoba Bisons teams to a CIS championship during her brilliant college career between 1995 and 2001. It was right for Dan Becker, a Fort Richmond Collegiate grad who played Division 1 NCAA at the University of Colorado starting in 1986, before a long pro career that saw him do stints with the Winnipeg Cyclone and Winnipeg Thunder, as well as teams in Europe, Australia and Israel.

It was also right for Norm Froemel, the J.H. Bruns Collegiate grad who is still the all-time University of Winnipeg Wesmen leader in rebounding and percentage shooting, and played six years professionally in Germany.

Being inducted alongside the players are coach Clyde Perry, who helped build high-school basketball programs and founded the Winnipeg Invitational Tournament in 1976, and Russ Roney, a coach and official who worked hard to develop officiating around Brandon for well over 40 years.

The teams being honoured this year include the Glenlawn Lions varsity girls team that won provincial championships in 1962, '65 and '66, and Brandon's Vincent Massey Vikings varsity boys team that captured three consecutive AA titles starting in 1969.

Those inductees will be celebrated at a dinner on Oct. 5 at the Victoria Inn.

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the hall, and Wedlake said organizers are planning something special to recognize the folks who put the hall together, and some of its earliest inductees.

"We're definitely going to do something," he said. "We want to recognize and preserve these achievements."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2013 C5

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