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Meet the last surviving member of Norco's pioneering veterans wheelchair basketball team

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In the late 1940s, wheelchair basketball became a national phenomenon. One game sold out Madison Square Gardens.
In the late 1940s, wheelchair basketball became a national phenomenon. One game sold out Madison Square Gardens.

70 years ago, the first organized wheelchair basketball team, made up of paralyzed World War 2 vets, hit the gym floor in Norco.

70 years ago, inspiration struck in Southern California that enriched the lives of countless veterans with spinal cord injuries. It was wheelchair basketball, which improved the vets’ physical and mental health, and helped tell their story at a time when disabled people were usually hidden away.

Listen to the audio to hear my conversation with David Davis, who has the story in the latest edition of Los Angeles Magazine, and Jerry Fesenmeyer, the last surviving member of The Rolling Devils, a team of paralyzed vets from the U.S. Naval Hospital in Norco.

Fesenmeyer, now 90 and living in a small town in Texas, was paralyzed by a Japanese sniper bullet near the end of World War 2. I asked what his treatment was like, and he laughed. "Let's put it this way, almost non-existent."

If Fesenmeyer had suffered a spinal cord injury prior to World War II, he likely would have died either from the trauma itself or from infection. The few paraplegics who survived in those days were shunted off to hospitals and ordered to remain flat on their backs. Then came penicillin and improved surgical techniques, both of which vastly increased the survival rate of the severely wounded. And long-term treatment began to change, too—albeit not right away. After peace was declared and Fesenmeyer was brought stateside, he landed at the U.S. Naval Hospital Corona in the Riverside County town of Norco, some 50 miles east of downtown. “In the beginning they didn’t know how to take care of us,” he says. “They believed if you had a spinal injury, you weren’t supposed to get out of bed for a year. I laid in that goddamn bed just rotting away.”

That scenario was changing, though. Doctors were developing a revolutionary, if counterintuitive, way to rehabilitate paralyzed vets: through exercise and, in particular, wheelchair basketball. The sport was born in Southern California and later helped launch the Paralympic Games, which celebrate their 56th year this September in Rio. Fesenmeyer was among the pioneers. At 90, he’s the last surviving member of the Rolling Devils, one of the first organized sports teams for disabled athletes. The Devils sold out arenas and transformed not only the public’s perception of paraplegics but paraplegics’ perceptions of themselves.

-- David Davis, Los Angeles Magazine

Jerry is typical of the Greatest Generation: the most he'll admit about playing wheelchair basketball is that it "got him out of bed." But it also gained him his first wife - a high school girl who came to a game in Corona - and for the public, it was an important wake-up call that people in wheelchairs are people with lives to lead.

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