MERCER ISLAND — As they shoot baskets at the Jewish Community Center on a recent morning, Michael and David Schiller engage in the sort of light-hearted banter that has fueled brothers from time immemorial.
It’s a scene the Schillers have repeated for some 50 years, since they would hang out at the JCC after grade school. Basketball is in the family DNA, David says, and has played itself out in fierce living-room nerf-ball matches, intramural and rec-league games, and weekend pickup runs.
“Basketball has truly been one of the constants in our family forever,” David Schiller said. “And will continue to be.”
The difference now, however, is that Michael Schiller does his hooping in a wheelchair. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago, and has experienced a gradual decline in his physical capabilities – though not his competitive instincts. Or his gentle trash-talking.
“One of the things I speak often about is that everyone has obstacles they have to deal with,” Michael said. “Everyone has their challenges. For me it happens to be MS. For David it happens to be looks.”
To which David interjected, “I thought mine was having you as a brother. I have two, I guess.”
But beneath the ribbing, it’s impossible to miss the genuine fondness and respect the brothers have for each other. That bond – coupled with their mutual love for their late father Irwin, who also had MS — is what led David Schiller to start the charity event that will take place Saturday at the JCC (3801 East Mercer Way).
From 12:30 until 4 p.m., David, age 54, will endeavor to make 1,000 free throws to raise money and awareness for MS (check out this website, www.FreeThrowsForMS.com, for more information). I’ve watched him, and he’s got a sweet shot, which he jokes was necessary to compensate for his lack of size and jumping ability.
So, for that matter, does Michael, 56, who as part of the event will sink 100 free throws of his own. That’s an accomplishment in itself for someone who had to learn from scratch the mechanics of shooting from a wheelchair. Give it a try some time if you can — it’s not easy.
Basketball was a big part of Schiller’s recovery process, especially mentally, when he got the devastating diagnosis of MS in 2005. According to the website of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, “MS is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.”
One of his first thoughts, Michael said, was concern that he would not be able to play basketball anymore. He stubbornly kept trying to maneuver his way around a court even as the symptoms progressed.
“I ended up falling on my face and actually dealing with a lot of bruises and whatnot,” he said. “It was quite devastating.”
The turning point came when Michael discovered a program called Seattle Adaptive Sports, which offers numerous activities for the physically impaired, including wheelchair basketball. It was nirvana to a hooper such as Schiller. After some eye-opening adjustment to what can be a highly skilled — and bruising — endeavor, he earned a spot with their competitive Seattle Sonics team.
Schiller has since competed at the national level, and internationally in the Maccabi Games in Israel. Now he is coaching the Seattle Storm women’s wheelchair team, which in March will compete in the national championship in Phoenix.
“I’ve been able to find a way to take that pain and create something more significant for myself, and frankly for my whole family,” said Schiller, who is married with two children.
It is that family bond that will be foremost on both their minds during the charity event. David Schiller will be wearing a University of Illinois jersey in honor of his father, a physician who died Sept. 1. The senior Schiller, to whom this year’s event will be dedicated, was diagnosed with MS late in life; MS is not an inherited disease, though according to the MS Society there is a genetic risk that may be inherited.
Getting closer to unraveling the cruel mysteries of MS is the crux of the Schillers’ motivation. One quirk: The Pacific Northwest has one of the highest rates of MS in the world. The disease also affects people differently. Michael Schiller has a progressive form, which is why he is now in his wheelchair about 80 percent of the time.
Any money raised will go toward finding a cure and helping those with the disease. The Schillers, through a series of MS Walks, bingo events and, since 2013, the free-throw extravaganza, have raised close to $200,000 for the MS Society, and just as important helped raise awareness. There will be snacks, games and prizes for those who attend Saturday, as well as a chance to shoot some free throws of their own on side courts.
“This is about my brother, my dad, and people with MS,” David Schiller said. “It’s about hope, it’s about family, it’s about community, and people rallying together for a common purpose.
“Ultimately, I’d love to not have to do this event, because there’s a cure and I could do something else.”
Both brothers admit their competitive streak comes out on a basketball court. David wants his free-throw percentage to be as high as possible Saturday — and it has reached 80 percent some years, with his girlfriend Mia faithfully doing the tallying from a court-side seat.
As for Michael, he was thrilled to discover, in a most painful way, that his competitive juices still raged, even in a wheelchair. He was surprised to see how physical, even violent, the action can get. It’s not uncommon to see players fall out of their chairs onto the floor; that happened to Schiller during a practice early in his tenure playing the game on wheels, when he accepted a pass and raced in for a layup. The resulting mayhem led to an epiphany.
“A guy came in and cut me off,” he explained. “Turned out it was a charge on me. But my chair hit, and I went rolling. I don’t have use of my left side, so I wasn’t capable of catching myself on my left side. And I went flat on my head. There’s a huge scar right here. My head split open, there was blood everywhere.
“All I remember is looking up at everyone like, ‘Oh, my God.’ All I could think about at that moment is, ‘I’m a friggin’ athlete.’ This is good. Thirty stitches later, it felt good. It felt good to be out there competing, despite the pain and the blood.”
Schiller sees the wheelchair basketball community as another family — nurturing and supportive of newcomers.
“There’s a lot of not just kids, but adults, who have disabilities and don’t have the understanding or ability to get out and compete in something they love doing,” he said. “But more importantly they don’t even know the opportunity exists out there. Once they find that, you realize you’re not alone.”
Once Schiller got through the inevitable “why me” stage — with the help of family, friends and even his at-the-time young children, who coaxed him out of his funk — Schiller has used a relentlessly positive outlook to deal with MS. And with an eye toward helping others with the disease.
He says it’s ironic that a wheelchair — the use of which he initially fought against — has become his ticket to independence. He has a sturdy model he uses for basketball, and another for everyday activities.
“The wheelchair was the admittance that this is becoming more and more permanent,” he said. “Oddly, it’s the wheelchair that has actually saved me, because I couldn’t travel any longer, but now I can travel. Now I can do my job. Now I can go shopping with my wife, or go to Costco, or do the things I wasn’t capable of doing.
“I probably with a cane could walk a hundred or two (hundred) feet, and unfortunately by the end of it, I’m so fatigued, I’m pretty much done. But in the wheelchair, I have the freedom and accessibility to do what I want. It was ego that kept me out of the wheelchair, but now that I’ve found the wheelchair and used it to my best ability, it’s actually granted me much better and more accessibility.”
Michael Schiller will be in his basketball wheelchair Saturday in Mercer Island, shooting baskets alongside his brother, and no doubt shooting barbs his way as well. But don’t be fooled. It’s all layered in love.
“Together, I think we’re a force to be reckoned with,” he said.