NWBA Star Will Waller Finds the Bronze Lining

Will Waller’s clean-cut look complete with omnipresent glasses projects the image of someone who has been very effective in human resources at Fortune 150 companies

Will Waller

He also happens to be in a wheelchair. Unlike many people, Waller can pinpoint the precise moment that led to now.

Waller, who won bronze on the Team USA’s Paralympic basketball team, nearly lost his life on May 23, 1992.

It’s safe to safe that his younger self was not on the same—seemingly healthy—track he’s now on.

Waller was an able-bodied teenager barely making his way through high school. Waller lived in a poor Chicago neighborhood when he was caught in the crosshairs of gang violence.

But Waller isn’t selling a sob story in what could ultimately be an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary. Waller was a victim of gang violence because he was in a gang. To this day, behind the Clark Kent-esque glasses and his “Superman” physique—he is taller than many even in a wheelchair—Waller carries baggage from his troubled youth.

“I can go hood on you,” Waller told the Connect Sports Diversity Events Summit audience in January.

He was only half-kidding. Waller’s story inspires by showing how he learned to channel his killer instinct into a healthier environment: a basketball court.

Waller didn't know he was paralyzed when he was first struck during that late-night drive-by shooting. He remembers his legs burning as his friend sped to catch up to the car hosting the shooter.

Only when it became clear blood was oozing out of Waller’s side did the car veer toward a hospital. Instead of a chase to punish the would-be killer, the drive was a race to save Waller’s life.

Waller survived the initial wound only to fall into a deep depression over the loss of his legs and ensuing chronic pain.

Yet, he still hadn’t learned his lesson. Drugs continue to play a danger role in Waller’s life. In fact, Waller admits to talking his way out of an arrest that would have cut his feel-good story off at the pass.

Then he discovered wheelchair basketball. “I felt normal for the first time in two years,” he says. “

I got my adrenaline pumping. I was sweating. I was talking smack to the other players on the court. It wasn’t pretty, but it was liberating.”

Like Neo from “The Matrix,” Waller learned to free his mind. Once the dark thoughts passed, Waller was able to see the light.

“I’ve had the opportunity to do some really cool things once I got my mind around being in a wheelchair,” he says.

Waller rebounded from his troubled past to eventually score a chance to play hoops at the University of Illinois, where he was part of two national championship teams. He then made the U.S. wheelchair basketball team, winning two world championships (he was named all-world in 2002) and then the bronze medal at two Paralympic Games.

After missing the cut at the most recent Paralympics, he is now CEO of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. He is also an inspiring speaker. His message is simple: It's easy to see the adversity he’s endured—the wheelchair gives it away—but he is hardly alone in suffering hardships.

“All of you can see my physical difference,” he told the January crowd. “But all of you have dealt with some sort of adversity in your life. Everyone has gone through something.”