2023.1207 Brandon Rush 2000

Brandon Rush: Sportable Volunteer of the Year

At the age of 14, Brandon Rush was exploring the woods on his bike, savoring the summer breeze, and happy that the start of his freshman year in high school was still months away. During one of his routine trail jumps, something went awry. He soared over his handlebars and landed hard on the compacted dirt, shattering his T11 vertebra.

The medical professionals at Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center initially informed him that a 12-month rehabilitation process lay ahead. However, an unexpected introduction to wheelchair basketball would dramatically alter this schedule.

Tired of being confined to his bed at Kluge, an invitation from a staff member enticed Brandon to visit the center’s gym and witness the Charlottesville Cardinals, a local wheelchair basketball team, showcasing the sport. Although he had experience with traditional standing basketball, mainly through casual games with cousins and friends, wheelchair basketball was entirely new to him.

Brandon recalls, “I went into the gym and saw everybody zipping around and shooting crazy shots, including 3-pointers, and I was hooked. At that moment, I knew I couldn’t wait 12 months to get back to my life and start playing this awesome sport. I worked incredibly hard and got out of rehab in just two months. I started my freshman year of high school on time and joined the Cardinals Wheelchair Basketball team just four months after my injury.”

Throughout high school and beyond, Brandon’s teammates became his role models, teaching him about living and thriving as a man and as a wheelchair user. One of those role models was Herman Key. Brandon remembers, “Herman was the first black man in a wheelchair I ever met. He had graduated from UVA. He was the team captain of the Cardinals. There were times, as a 14-year-old kid, when I needed to be talked to in a certain type of way. He was one of those people who would have tough talks with me.”

In 2007, Brandon took on a role at Charlottesville’s Independence Resource Center (IRC), a non-profit where Herman had previously held the position of assistant director before his passing. At this point, Brandon had become a father to a two-year-old son, and the opportunity to continue the legacy of one of his role models held significant personal meaning for him. In his role as an IRC peer advocate, Brandon assists people with newly acquired paralysis in transitioning home, and helps high schoolers with physical disabilities transition to college, training, or careers. In addition, he coaches the Charlottesville Cardinals and regularly takes wheelchair basketball on the road to schools and rehabilitation centers, just as he experienced during his own rehabilitation at Kluge.

In 2014, Richmond-based Sportable reached out to IRC director Tom Vandever and Brandon about helping Sportable’s fledgling youth wheelchair basketball team. They had a group of kids who wanted to play but no one to lead them. Brandon felt a strong urge to pay forward the gift of wheelchair basketball that had transformed his own life. Consequently, he, along with Tom, volunteered their time, commuting from Charlottesville to Richmond each week.

While Brandon is fiercely competitive and enjoys a first-place finish, his list of favorite aspects of volunteering with Sportable conspicuously excludes the word “winning.” Brandon remarked, “My favorite moments are at practices when a kid looks at you and says, ‘That makes sense.’ I love it when the kids learn something new, whether it is about playing better basketball or having a better attitude. I’ve learned a lot of things the hard way. I want to help the kids do things the right way the first time.”

Over the years, as Brandon coached both his adult team in Charlottesville and the young athletes at Sportable, his perspective transformed. He says mental health is just as important, if not more important, than the physical aspects of the game. He explained, “I’ve learned a lot about coaching the game of wheelchair basketball. I had been a player for a long time. On the floor, you have more control of what’s going on. As a coach, you have to get the team to believe in your vision of how to play the game. I’ve come to find out it’s more than just yelling instructions. It’s more than just coming up with a game plan. It’s the times when players get so emotionally invested that have nothing to do with basketball. You have to figure out a way to cater to their needs so that they can be successful inside and outside of basketball.”

Brandon added, “Ultimately, it’s just a game. Once that buzzer goes off, win or lose, you have to take those feelings home. My goal is to help our young players develop coping skills related to this game in the hope that those skills will overflow into their lives and help them cope with things off the court.”

Regarding his selection as Sportable’s volunteer of the year, Brandon had this to say, “The trust, love, and inclusion I feel from Sportable has been like no other. It’s truly a family.”

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