When James Millington is playing basketball, he feels exhilarated.
“It’s only when you stop that the pain comes back full force,” the starting forward of the San Jose Spokes wheelchair basketball team said. “For three hours, twice a week, it’s a whole lot of fun. It makes life worth living.”
The South San Francisco resident spent 20 years riding the bench of the Championship Division Golden State Road Warriors. He gained more playing time this year by joining the Division 3 Spokes in its inaugural National Wheelchair Basketball Association season.
At the NWBA national championships in Denver last month, the 24th-ranked Spokes came back from a 13-point halftime deficit to defeat Chicago 53-50. The Spokes dropped a close second-round game to fifth-ranked North Carolina 74-70 before facing the Heat from Florida in the double elimination tournament.
“Those little guys were like rolling doorstops,” the bulky and muscular Millington said of his team’s loss to the Heat. “They were like surgeons; they went out there and operated on us. We lost by 20.”
Being operated on is something Millington understands well.
At the age of 19 in 1979, the San Mateo native fell and broke his right leg during an Army training mission. A subsequent infection was so severe that amputation was recommended, but the young soldier would not consider losing his leg.
After two years in recovery, Millington walked out of Letterman Hospital in the Presidio with a steel brace on his leg and a limp.
In 1983, fate dealt him another harsh blow.
Driving his motorcycle home one night from drill sergeant school, Millington never saw an unlit van picking up a hitchhiker in the slow lane of Highway 92.
“Every ligament and tendon in my right knee was torn,” Millington said. “They stopped counting the stitches on my head and face at 700.”
Sixteen months later, Millington walked out of Crystal Springs Rehabilitation Center. His stint with the Army was over and his career with the U.S. Postal Service began. He’s been a postal employee ever since, currently working as a custodian in Burlingame.
In February of 1988, Millington lost the use of his legs after a debilitating accident at work.
“An iron door came crashing down on my side. My knee was crushed in a zillion pieces.” Millington recalled. “I was in the hospital six months. I returned to work in a wheelchair.”
Soon thereafter, he was recruited by Golden State Road Warriors founders Bill and Julie Duncan, and he’s been wheeling and dealing on the court ever since.
“James is like Shaq, a goofball and team player at the same time” Spokes team captain Lee Williamson said. “He’s a true hard-working soldier.”
Prep athlete: At Aragon High School in San Mateo and Dix High in Nebraska; played football, baseball, track and field
Wheelchair athlete: At the National Veteran Wheelchair Games, Millington has competed in softball, discus, javelin, bowling, trapshooting and basketball
Wheelchair basketball: Players allowed two pushes on the hand rims; then must dribble, pass or shoot
National Wheelchair Basketball Association: www.nwba.org
Paralyzed Veterans of America: www.pva.org