Several years ago, I interviewed a young man named Sean Burns. Then 9 years old, Sean was a whirling dervish of wheeling energy, avid about a half-dozen sports. He also loved to watch sports, rooting for every team in his Carolina region. When I asked Sean to name his favorite athlete, knowing his favorite spectator sport is baseball, I expected to hear Atlanta Brave Chipper Jones or maybe Andruw Jones.
Sean thought for a moment, then answered: “Dave Kiley.”
How terrific that a young wheelchair athlete can bestow hero status on an accomplished athlete who moves through the world like he does, and not only because of his talent. And how perfect that the man he looks up to — one of the best-known wheelchair athletes in the world, and arguably the greatest wheelchair basketball player of all time — happens to be his coach.
Dave Kiley is the owner of 13 Paralympic medals (nine of them gold) in basketball, skiing and racing. In addition to his unprecedented six MVP awards from National Wheelchair Basketball Tournaments, Kiley was voted the Most Valuable Player of the First 50 Years of the sport by the International Wheelchair Basketball Association. Kiley was also the first player to serve as commissioner, then president, of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. While in office, he forged an alliance with the National Basketball Association, which led to the NBA/NWBA Wheelchair Classic — an all-star exhibition played at the fan festival before the pro league’s All Star Game. In the 2006 Classic, the MVP Award for the east division went to 52-year-old Dave Kiley.
Kiley has been the director of two adaptive sports programs — at Casa Colina in Pomona, Calif., and the Charlotte Institute of Rehab in Charlotte, N.C. — for a total of 26 years. Now, having shifted gears slightly, he’s the director of growth for Turning POINT, a Texas-based outdoor adventure organization.
Turning POINT, the creation of paraplegic sportsman Michael “Shorty” Powers, promotes fishing, boating, shooting, climbing and other outdoor activities, mostly for men with spinal cord injuries. Kiley’s mission is to expand and diversify. He’s already created five new chapters in five cities, with a goal of repeating that success each year for the next five years.
Kiley says Turning POINT has been a “one-man show,” so “we’re creating boards and raising funds, and setting up a framework, a national organization.” He sees a need for more outdoor programs, to reach both young people with disabilities and the recently injured. “I’ve always enjoyed outdoor activities,” he says, “and now it’s good to focus on that. I’m an older athlete going to a place where age isn’t as significant a factor.”
Kiley and Powers’ relationship is the stuff of legend: In 1982, they and four other members of Turning POINT set out to scale Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas. Against the advice of park management and despite steep grades and the risk of electrical storms, they made the ascent. Powers and Robert Leyes had to turn back, but five days after they started, Kiley, Donny Rodgers and Joe Moss reached the summit by crawling the final few hundred yards, pulling their wheelchairs behind them with rope clenched in their teeth. They spent the night on the mountain and the next morning were lifted off by U.S. Army helicopters.
At 52 years old, Kiley insists this is his final NWBA season. A 1990 wrist injury has come back to haunt him — he’ll need complicated surgery if he continues to play. Although players who don’t know about the injury don’t understand why he’s retiring, Kiley decided it was time to listen to his body. “I said, ‘Doc, just give me a cortisone shot to get me through the end of the season, and then I’ll quit.'”
His decision has imbued the 2006 season with special meaning. “Knowing that this is my last year, I have taken it very seriously,” says Kiley. “I’d been on cruise control with my basketball — if I won, no big thing, if I lost, no big thing. But this year I’m treating every moment as really special.”
Kiley is clearly driven in everything he does. His voice becomes especially animated when he talks about “the kids” — the team Kiley coaches in the prep league, the youngest division of organized wheelchair basketball. His players were originally sponsored by CIR’s adaptive sports program. After 10 years, Kiley left CIR when differences with an administrator became irreconcilable. No longer on staff, Kiley offered to coach the team as a volunteer. The hospital declined. Parents of several players then appealed to hospital administration, even offering to serve as liaison to keep contact minimal and nerves soothed. Still, the hospital insisted that Kiley could not be involved.
Rather than separate from their coach, the fathers of three players pooled their experience and resources and formed their own nonprofit organization — Abilities Unlimited of the Carolinas. The Charlotte Buzzer Beaters were reborn as the Junior Charlotte Rollin’ Bobcats. The hospital declined to comment on the situation. Mike Godsey, whose son Jon plays on the team, serves as one of Kiley’s assistant coaches, as does Kiley’s own son Justin, age 26. (Kiley also has a daughter, Danielle, 21.) Godsey believes CIR’s administration lost sight of its mission and allowed personal issues to cloud their judgment. “There are only a few premier disabled basketball coaches in the country, and Dave is one of them. He lives in our area, and he volunteers to drive an hour each way to practice, at no cost. The hospital said there was a rule that wouldn’t permit it. We believe that was an excuse.”
At the start of the 2005 season, things got worse. According to Godsey, CIR gave the Bobcats 10-day’s notice to return the sports chairs the team had been using for three years. The parents asked if they could use the chairs on loan, but the hospital refused, claiming it was forming a new basketball program. At present, no such program exists.
With the help of Kiley’s personal network, Abilities Unlimited was able to get new chairs. “All the kids wanted to know was, ‘Is Dave going to be our coach?'” says Godsey. “As parents, we couldn’t let the answer be no.”
This isn’t celebrity worship. Godsey had known Kiley for more than a year before learning of the coach’s superstar past — and discovered it only through his own research. “Dave has been very involved in our kids’ lives, not just teaching them about athletics, but also teaching them about life,” says Godsey. “As the nondisabled parent of a child with a disability, there’s a gap in your experience. To have someone like Dave in our children’s lives is priceless.”
Dick Bryant, Kiley’s coach on the Division II Charlotte Rollin’ Bobcats, says that great players don’t often make good coaches, but Kiley is an exception. “The kids love Dave because he’s a big kid at heart,” says Bryant. “He has fun with them. He has a lot of patience. As a player, he’s all fire and fury. But when the game is over, there’s a person with a big heart who loves the game and wants to share that joy with the kids.”
Anyone who has seen Kiley play knows about that fire and fury. “As a younger player, I was always on the verge, like a gorilla trying to get out of a cage,” Kiley says of his infamous on-court temper. “As I’ve gotten older, that part of my game has gotten much better. As a player, I sometimes crossed the line. But coaching — never.” Jon Godsey, a 12-year-old Junior Rollin’ Bobcat, says of his coach, “He’s able to make you play better, just by giving you encouragement. He’s able to make you listen better, just by the way he talks. He makes you feel really good about your game, and you want to try really hard for him.”
Bryant echoes this: “Being around Dave makes the kids want to be a better player, a good student, a better person — all the things they see in Dave.” It’s not just the Junior Rollin’ Bobcats who feel this way. Whether wheelchair athletes or the nondisabled children of Kiley’s former teammates, at a water-skiing clinic or a post-tournament social, young people gravitate to Kiley’s orbit. “Dave’s very aware of what it means to be a role model,” says Bryant.
The results of the NWBA’s 2006 Prep Division National Tournament, held in Peoria, Ill., speak to Kiley’s coaching excellence, and that extends beyond the scoreboard. With the stands ablaze in orange T-shirts worn by parents and well-wishers who’d made the trip from Charlotte, the Junior Rollin’ Bobcats lost to the number one-ranked team by only two points. “When that game ended,” says Kiley, “you’d think you might have seen some sad faces. But they remembered their first year, when they didn’t win a game, and last year, when they came in 11th place. Kids were raising their hands over their heads like they won!” After a 16-2 season — the only two losses coming in extra, out-of-conference games — and a third-place finish nationally, the players were riding high.
“I showed them that if you work hard enough, you’re going to improve. And if you stick to a plan, you’ll be successful,” says Kiley. “We told them their coaches would love them just as much no matter how the tournament turned out.
“This is a team,” Kiley says, his pride obvious. “Usually in a prep team, you have one or two players who dominate, but this is a complete team, with no selfishness.” That seems as great a tribute to Dave Kiley as any MVP award.
When asked what he regards as his greatest sports achievement, Kiley rambles: “These kids, how close I am with them and their families — that’s my greatest joy in basketball. When I look back to the Casa Colina days
But when asked to name his greatest regret, Kiley responds instantly: “Barcelona.”
Kiley’s career, though stellar, has not been free of controversy. His aggressive playing style, volatile temper and long-running dominance earned him many detractors. One painful chapter of U.S. wheelchair basketball, will always be associated with him.
Kiley has won nine Paralympic gold medals, but many people believe that number should be 10. In 1992, the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team won the gold medal game in the Barcelona Paralympics. They headed home as champions, but before their plane had crossed the Atlantic, they had been stripped of their medals. Kiley had tested positive for a banned substance.
Kiley never denied taking the painkiller, given to him by a coach for persistent nerve pain, but a mess of complications followed. There were political machinations, a lack of due process, and a viper’s nest of back-stabbing. Despite numerous appeals, the medal was never returned.
Over the years, when talking about the debacle, Kiley’s voice has mellowed from anger to sadness to resignation, and now, something else: acceptance. “It wasn’t only my gold medal count that was affected,” he says. “I have nine. Some of the players on that team would have only had one. My decision cost them their only gold medal.”
“My decision, my negligence, my ignorance, my … we could talk about the circumstances that led me to a situation that was somewhat out of my control. But the bottom line is I take the responsibility.”
Kiley was injured at 19 when the inner tube he was riding in the snow met a tree. When Kiley recalls that young man who played high school basketball and “lived and breathed sports” in the nondisabled world, who does he see?
“Even though I was good at sports, I was unsure of myself,” he remembers. “I had no direction. I didn’t know what the heck I was going to do. Right when I was the most confused, I got hurt. But from that point forward, I had clarity and direction. After the first year or two of adjustment to being disabled, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Now Kiley has spent nearly two-thirds of his life as a paraplegic, and as a highly successful person. “A lot of people expect you to still wish you were walking. But I love my life, and I can’t imagine it being any better.”
Dick Bryant has been around wheelchair basketball since 1970 and has known Dave Kiley since 1974. Says Bryant, “In my eyes — and I’ve seen a lot in 35 years — Dave is the greatest player to ever play wheelchair basketball. There may have been someone better defensively, or better at this or at that, but when you talk about the game overall, there is nobody who has played it better than Dave Kiley.”