Prior to 1987, the Chicago Sidewinders was the dominant team in Chicago. Led by stars like hall-of-famer Don Vandello and perennial clutch shooter, Greg Palumbo, the team stalked the hardwood. But the team suffered from many of the same aliments that caused more than 50 teams to fold in the last 15 years: funding, attendance, and player development.
Led by players Jim Gallo, Greg Palumbo, and Bruce Mitchell, the Sidewinders approached the Chicago Bulls of the N.B.A. with plans to become their wheelchair basketball team and be adopted into their organization. The Bulls accepted the proposal resulting in the newest member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, the Chicago Wheelchair Bulls.
The Wheelchair Bulls inherited some of the past difficulties of the previous team. The team had to find funding to cover its annual expenses of insurance, travel, and gym rentals. At that point, not only did the team lack a gym to play in and uniforms to wear, it didn't even have basketballs!
The team received its first lift when Budweiser and Wilson Sporting Goods signed on as sponsors. Budweiser provided the funding for new uniforms that matched those of the Bulls, and Wilson Sporting Goods provided the team with basketballs and shoes. Wilson continues its support and is the only sponsor with the team since its inception.
The team was off and rolling and in its first year. It was introduced to Chicago by their N.B.A. parent as the halftime show for several games as well as by WGN in a segment of the Channel 9 News called "Chicago's Very Own."
The team rewarded the support of its sponsors by finishing the 1987-88 season ranked 16th in the country. The team managed to cover all expenses and furthered its fundraising through sponsorships and exhibition games. The Illinois Lottery and Converse joined the team's family of sponsors.
By the end of the 1988-89 season, the team was enjoying wide exposure, including increased features on WGN, WBBM A.M., WLIT-93.9 F.M. and SportsChannel, and articles in the Chicago SunTimes and News and Views and The Source, a newspaper focusing on disability issues. Bulls Jim Gallo and Greg Palumbo appeared as guests on WLIT's Sunday morning talk radio show with Gene Honda. Honda soon became a proponent of wheelchair sports and the Wheelchair Bulls.
The 1989-1990 season was important for the Wheelchair Bulls on many fronts. Easter Seals and the Multiplex Fitness Center became sponsors. Multiplex president, Mickey Gitlitz, sponsored a visit by the Israel national team and hosted a game between the two teams. The halftime show featured a shootout contest between a player from each team, former N.B.A. Bulls' head coach Doug Collins and his son, Chris. The shootout ended in a tie between Bulls' Don Vandello and the younger Collins.
In January 1990, the team held the first "Day For Kids" where the Wheelchair Bulls invited over one hundred disabled children and their families to be their guests for a Saturday afternoon. The players and families had lunch together and then the kids were taken out on the court for an hour of fun. This year, the tournament will be held for the 10th consecutive year and it continues to grow. The event could not be held without the help of its two primary sponsors: Marianjoy and NEDSRA. This year, the team welcomes The Jack DeLoss Charitable Trust as a major sponsor to the Kids' Day. The Trust stepped up after one of the trustees attended a Kids' Day event a couple years ago.
Also stepping up for disabled sports as a corporate sponsor was Gatorade Thirst Quencher. The folks at Gatorade not only signed on as a sponsor but donated merchandise for the Tournament for Kids and for sports camps held in the summer.
The team signed an agreement with Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital and Clinics and Northeast Dupage Special Recreation Association (NEDSRA) to hold several multisport clinics for disabled individuals in their programs. In addition to basketball, track and field and tennis were major sports taught at these clinics. The grant from Marianjoy was the team's largest and it started a great relationship that has resulted in personal appearances, speeches, and a mutual respect. Marianjoy remains the Wheelchair Bulls top supporter.
NEDSRA and the Addison Park District opened Centennial Park, a new facility with a regulation-sized basketball court and offered it
to the team as its new home for all practices and games. Administratively, the search for gyms had been both time consuming and expensive. In addition, because the team did not know its game sites in advance, it was impossible to publish a schedule prior to the start of any season.
Also in 1991, Michael Jordan, through the Michael Jordan Foundation, awarded the Wheelchair Bulls a grant to hold basketball camps.
By the start of the 1991-1992 season, several other N.B.A. teams adopted wheelchair basketball teams, The topic had even become an agenda item at the N.B.A.'s annual meetings.
The Phoenix Suns and the Minnesota Timberwolves joined the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and the Bulls as N.B.A. sponsors of wheelchair teams. The goal was to have every N.B.A. team adopt a wheelchair team with the possible formation of a new conference or league of N. B.A. –sponsored teams. Since then, more teams have been adopted bringing the total to 17 including the Orlando Magic, Seattle Supersonics, Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks and others.
During the '91 season, the Bulls welcomed back the Israeli national team. Again hosted by the Multiplex, the Bulls played in the Mickey Gitlitz Invitational, and captured the Mickey Cup, a trophy that remains on display at the Multiplex. Later that season, the Bulls hosted and won the first-ever N.B.A. wheelchair tournament. In it, the team played host to other NBA-sponsored teams in games played under NBA rules.
In 1992, the Bulls added several new corporate sponsors. American Airlines became the Official Airline of the Wheelchair Bulls. Action Technology's Pro-T, became the wheelchair of choice of the Wheelchair Bulls.
In 1993, the team welcomed yet another corporate sponsor, Niemi Associates, a firm specializing in structuring settlements. Through the 1992-1993 season, the Wheelchair Bulls continued to be one of the dominant teams in the country.
Following that season, the Wheelchair Bulls brought basketball to the inner-city, hosting a basketball camp in conjunction with the Schwab Rehabilitation Center.
In 1993, the Wheelchair Bulls, Marianjoy and NEDSRA, announced the formation of the Junior Wheelchair Bulls, a team composed of kids who previously attended many of the summer basketball camps. Coached by Craig Culp, the junior team won the Division 11 Junior Championships in 1995
The junior program continues to grow. There are now three junior teams which are administered by NEDSRA (Jr. Wheelchair Bulls-East), Western Dupage Special Recreation Association (Jr. Wheelchair Bulls-West), and Northwest Special Recreation Association (Jr. Wheelchair Bulls-North). The ultimate goal of the junior program was to continue the growth of the Wheelchair Bulls by training and teaching juniors to play at the adult competitive level. In 1996, the team brought up two juniors, Josh Lueptow and Eric Munkvold, to play at the higher level. In 1997, another Junior Bull, Marrissa Martinez, moved up to play for the adult women's team, the R.I.C. Express, further attesting to the success of the junior program.
In 1996, the team saw its national ranking drop outside the top-25 for the first time. But in 1997, the team had its best recruiting season and with the additions of 1998 National team players, Kris Lenzo and Josh Fabian, immediate success is expected.
Also in 1997, the NBA announced the first-ever wheelchair basketball all-star game for teams sponsored by the NBA. The team selected Don Vandello to represent it in New York in February 1998.
The 1997-'98 season was the best in the team's history. With a final record of 31-3, the team hit the number-1 ranking in Division I I and was ranked 10th overall. The season culminated in the team's first-ever appearance in the Final Four held in Nashville, Tennessee. Although the team came up short and lost in the semi-finals 50-45 to Virginia Beach, no single game could diminish the success of the season.
Outside the game, the Wheelchair Bulls made working with disabled children their number one objective. They achieved this through the basketball camps and the Tournament For Kids. With the help of gracious sponsors like Marianjoy, NEDSRA-WDSRA and all the SRA's, The Jack DeLoss Taylor Charitable Trust, Niemi Associates, Converse, Wilson Sporting Goods and the Multiplex, the Wheelchair Bulls have entertained and touched the lives of hundreds of children.71
Wheelchair basketball started in 1946 in the Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals across the United States with teams being formed by disabled veterans of World War 11. In 1948, there were six teams in the country while the sport spread across the border to Canada and across the ocean to England.
The end of the decade in 1949 saw the creation of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) formed at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana, and the first National Wheelchair Basketball Champions, the Kansas City Rolling Pioneers.
Wheelchair basketball competition went international in 1954 when a team from Montreal, Canada was invited to play in the sixth National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. The following year, wheelchair basketball was showcased for the first time at the Stoke-Mandeville Games in London, England and has been played there each year since. Wheelchair basketball is now played in both the Paralympics and Gold Cup Competitions, each held every four years - two years apart.
The United States National Team is considered one of I the most prolific teams in the World. The recent past has seen the U.S. take the gold medal in the Gold Cup competition in 1986 in Australia. They took the gold in the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, Korea, and recently took the bronze at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta after being upset by Australia. The NWBA had grown to over 200 teams across the U.S. playing in approximately 20 conferences by some 2500 athletes. The number of teams has slowly decreased to its present level of approximately 140 teams. The expanding number of conferences and teams through the years has necessitated the institution of a system of regional and sectional post-season tournaments similar to the NCAA's "Road to the Final Four" in order to reach the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament's "Final Four." The 1998 National Champion was the Dallas Mavericks. After beating up the competition all year, the Mavericks advanced to the Final Four in Nashville where they toppled the Golden State Warriors for the National Championship. It was a repeat of last year's national championship with identical results.
Don Vandello, #41
Don Vandello was the first member of the Wheelchair Bulls to be inducted into the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall Of Fame. Vandello is the best player to ever come out of Chicago. Playing both the guard and forward positions, he has won countless awards including MVP of 1979 National Tournament, All-American awards, all-conference and all-tournament, etc.
Vandello was the leading scorer on the team and has been for over a decade. Vandello is a 19 time member of the USA teams and has collected 13 medals including 6 gold. Vandello also had a great career in track and field. He was at one time the fastest wheelchair athlete in the world. He was the first athlete to break the 6 minute mile (in the 1970's). Vandello's hometown is Walworth Wisconsin where he lives with his wife Mikel. She is one of the best women players in the U.S. She has been on 6 USA teams. Vandello also has two sons and owns his own plumbing supply business.