Wheelchair basketball player serves as role model for Salisbury

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SALISBURY - For John Gilbert, home is where his heart is. 

Gilbert is the head coach of the junior high boys basketball team in Salisbury, and he strives to teach kids important lessons about the game. 

"I think everything starts on the defensive end of the court," Gilbert said. "So if you have good defensive fundamentals, you only have to score one more point than the other team. Offense is a very important part of the game, but defense is the most important side of basketball because good defense usually leads into a really quick offense."

Gilbert plays a big role in getting kids ready for high school basketball, but he also plays a role in teaching kids lessons that apply off the court.

"Basketball not only helped me with athletics, but it also taught me a lot of life lessons that things are not going to always go your way, and it's what you do when things are kind of down that makes you a better person," Gilbert said.

Whitney Gilbert, Gilbert's wife, said she sees the valuable impression he makes on kids.

"I think he's a huge role model. I think especially since he's in a wheelchair, but he's not in a wheelchair because of his personality and the way he acts and the way he presents himself. He's bigger than that and I think those kids look up to that, and they see him and see that he's not just a guy in a wheelchair that feels sorry for himself. He's a guy that loves life and tries to live it to the fullest.

Gilbert has been in a wheelchair for most of his life.

"I had a tumor on my spine at T-6 when I was nine, and I jumped out of a swing, which supposedly made my tumor swell and it severed my spinal cord," Gilbert said.

Gilbert said it didn't take long for him, however, to adapt to his new circumstances.

"It really wasn't too bad because I was still pretty young," Gilbert said. "I was nine years old, so I mean I knew what life was before the chair, but I adapted pretty quickly and lived in a small town that really put me under their wing and helped me out any way possible. Basketball was a big piece of it too."

Gilbert did not let his situation keep him away from his passion.

"It got started a long time ago when I was 10 years old," Gilbert said. "I started playing for my community team up in Omaha, Nebraska, which was closer to my hometown in northwest Missouri than Kansas City was. I played up there for eight years and then got an offer to go to Mizzou and play wheelchair basketball from 2005 to 2010. In the middle of that, I got an invite to start doing U.S. wheelchair basketball as well, and I've been on the U.S. team for the last three years and looking to go for the fourth and go to Rio."

Gilbert gives credit to the town of Salisbury for his accomplishments.

"Salisbury is a great town," Gilbert said. "I'm used to the small town environment, so that's definitely where I want to raise a family, and in basketball it's so important. Not just basketball but in any sport. Just to teach you what teamwork and cooperation are and how to depend on other people. So more interdependence than independence."

When it comes to competing for the United States in the 2016 Paralympics, Gilbert has one goal in mind. 

"Be the best in the world," Gilbert said. "Right now we are number two because in the World Championships in 2014 in Incheon [South Korea], we lost to Australia in the gold medal game. I have a picture in my room of us with our silver medals and that motivates me enough. I want to be the best in the world."  

The 2016 Paralympic Games are scheduled to begin Sept. 7 and end Sept. 18.