By Shweta Mishra
No challenge is too great for Miles Oree Hill, who went from idolizing his surgeons in kindergarten to playing competitive wheelchair-basketball 14 years later. Now he wants to play in either the Paralympics or Special Olympics.
Miles never required legs to travel the world, much less dribble and dunk. His world adventure began when he was just a spark in his parents’ eyes, when his dad, serving in the Navy’s information technology branch at NATO headquarters in Oreis, Portugal, met his mom. At the moment of conception, Miles tacked yet another continent under his belt when Timothy Hill and Ana Costa left Ana’s home in Cascais for NATO headquarters in Verona, Italy. And when Miles gulped his first lungful of air in Italy, he boasted dual Portuguese-American citizen and secured his adult entitlement to Italian citizenship. To boot, he beat his twin brother Martin by a whole minute in the race to be born.
But the journey was just beginning, and it would be about much more than geography. When the doctors pulled the twins out via C-section, they found that Miles had spondyloptosis and a tethered spinal cord. So Miles’ father had to ask the Navy for early return stateside, landing Miles on his third continent at nine months of age.
“Getting a full diagnosis and finding a doctor to work on such a severe case took us from Italy to Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia, to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, to Norfolk Children’s Hospital and finally to Duke,” Tim says.
Miles didn’t just roll onto the basketball court after all the surgeries. His first dream was to be a doctor. In kindergarten at Holt Elementary in Durham, NC, he scrawled a man with a stethoscope and the words ‘I’m a doctor’ on a slip of paper.
“The legs were bow-legged, like went in,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know why I drew his legs like that. His arms were off at weird angles.”
Miles had at least three operations to correct clubbed feet before he was six years old. In 2006, doctors fused his spine and substituted malformed vertebrae with artificial parts, and he finally began walking.
“So I thought doctors are cool,” he says. He adds with his characteristic warmth and bubbly ease: “Doctors are wassup.”
In 6th grade, Miles began reworking his dreams. At home he often played video games with his twin and younger brother, crowding three PlayStations and a Nintendo, each vying for top scores. But sometimes Miles was alone at the two-player consuls. When his brothers went to play ball around the hoop outside, he didn’t follow.
“I never actually played with anybody else in the neighborhood.” He lowers his voice as if making a confession. “It’s because I was some buns at basketball back when I was young – like I was trash, I was horrible. I wasn’t fast and I wasn’t tall either.”
Then he adds, “But let me tell you, I really loved that PlayStation. That was – that was real.”
And it was through video games that Miles first encountered sports.
From homebody to fantasy football
“One day in 2010, some of our friends gave us their GameCube because they were headed off to college, and it had this one football game, Madden NFL ’07,” Miles says. “The game assumed you already knew how to play football – never told you how to score. I didn’t know what touchdowns and field goals were, nothing like that, and the first way I learned how to score was a safety. And then I pushed the stick forward, and I just ran to the end zone and scored more points, and I was like, okay, let’s try again! And that’s how I learned to play football, through the video game.”
When his Xbox disk-reader broke, he sat and jotted down enough football stats to fill a binder. He read voraciously about sports because he felt exasperated around adult conversations. Probably as a result, his sports commentary and knowledge are remarkable for his age.
“I picked up a book the other day, it was ‘Pro-Football’s Best Seasons of the Greatest Teams’, by Eddie Epstein,” he says. “The best team of all time was the ’85 Bears is what the author said. Their offensive rating was 3.3 and their defense was 3.4, so their rating was 6.7, which is the highest since like 1950. ”
But reading goaded Miles. He actually wanted to be on the field.
His yearning to play came to a head in 7th grade.
Getting into the game
“I talked to my dad. I was like, dad, can I play football at school? And my dad told me no doctor was gonna clear me to play football because of my disability. He was like, even if you want to and even if I let you, a doctor wouldn’t clear me. I was 12, and that really hurt me. He said you don’t always have to play football to be involved in football, you know what I’m saying. You can be a manager or something. And I thought about it, and I was like nope. I never can understand how people commentate for soccer and football without being able to play. You can’t affect what happens, the only thing you can do is talk about it. I can’t do that, I would hate it.”
But he said news about concussions from football and requirements for Heads-Up-certified coaches helped convince him to refrain from the sport.
“So that’s when, when football season was over and it was basketball season, I asked my dad — dad, can I play basketball? And he said, a doctor won’t clear you to play basketball either. So that’s when I was like, what can I play? I know I got a disability, but what can I play. And then we found the flyer.”
It seemed like divine providence that Miles and his mom were at the Durham County Library in time to spot the ad for wheelchair basketball on the bulletin board.
“I was like, we gotta go try this, and my mom said, okay, we can try. My dad ended up taking me, and because he has work, we were really late. It started at 4:30 and ended at 5:30, and we walked in the door at 5:29.”
But days later, Miles was a walk-on for the Junior Thunder.
Bridge II Sports would change his life.
The game changer
The organization holds its wheelchair basketball practices in the recreation center of Braggtown Baptist Church, memorably located between the Sikh Gurudhwara temple and Pelican’s SnoBalls in Durham. Brianna Edwards, a 22-year-old UNC-Greensboro alum, is the program coordinator, managing the organization’s 12 recreational and sports programs. She studied recreational therapy and joins the throng on the white expanse of a basketball court, sliding around in a wheelchair herself.
“Okay, let’s do suicides now!” she yells cheerily, and Miles, a couple of wounded warriors from Iraq and volunteers begin racing from one end of the court to the other, warming up for a practice game.
Miles explains that Junior Thunder has practices in Durham on Tuesdays and in Raleigh on Fridays, but he mainly attends the local practice. He beams with adoration for his team and the organization.
“It’s built my confidence. Now when I see somebody closed like I was, I’ll reach out to them. Now that I play wheelchair basketball, I’m happy that I am the way I am. That’s what I love about it — I see a whole bunch of people, and I’m like, wow, the way they play, if everybody in the NBA had that drive – and if people in wheelchairs didn’t have that disability – they would be at the caliber of Lebron. It shows that anybody can do – as long as you put hard work into it – can do anything.”
Of all his coaches, Miles most admires Michael Atkins, his older head coach, and assistant coach Hakim Hassel.
“The way they play is how I wanna play,” he says. Miles admires that Hakim demonstrates strength and agility in the wheelchair through core muscle exertion.
“He was born with spina bifida, so his lower body is really weak, but he has a really strong upper body. And one thing that I’ve never known how to do in wheelchair basketball that he does is use body control, where instead of putting your hands on the wheel, you can move your body so that your chair will turn with you. The one way Hakim plays is he uses his core and just takes his two pushes, and he can go down the court and never dribble the ball, just straight turn and make his way past everybody and do the layup. Sometimes he gets on one wheel and he does it on purpose, but for some reason he never falls. His balance is crazy.”
Miles also looks to Mike for role modeling. He says that after Mike, a long-time basketball player, had a car accident that made him paraplegic, he didn’t give up the sport. He persevered.
“And he’s so good,” Miles says. “He takes his two pushes, and he’ll just stare at the goal with the ball like this and bring it up real slow and when he hits the three-point line he’ll shoot it. He has a 60% three-point percentage, it’s crazy how he does it.”
Miles says that Mike has helped him refine his performance in several ways, in particular by holding onto and pushing his elbows inward so they maintain correct form rather than going akimbo as he throws the ball.
In the short time Miles has played at Bridge II Sports, he’s made strides in strength and technique. He’s been able to walk without his wheelchair for the longest time yet, and he’s participated in nationwide in both wheelchair basketball and track, which he practices to condition his body during basketball off-season. Tim lists his “busy-body” son’s basketball tournaments and conditioning races for track: Miles has played in Cary, NC, for the 2012 Winter Classic; Smithfield, NC, for the 2012 and 2013 Hog Wild; Charlotte, NC, for the 2013 Winter Classic; Atlanta for the 2012 and 2013 Southeastern Conference Championship; Birmingham in the Lakeshore 2013 Youth Southern Regional Tourney; and Louisville, KY, in the 2012 to 2013 season of National Wheelchair Basketball Association Championships.
They’re looking forward to the Winter Classic in Cary on November 1st and 2nd.
Wide horizons, great expectations
Miles also has his eyes further along on the timeline. He’s interested in pursuing an education on a wheelchair basketball scholarship to one of five universities that fund the sport: University of Alabama, University of Illinois, Missouri University, Auburn University and Oklahoma State University. His dad says Duke University is not on their list because it currently lacks a wheelchair basketball program. Miles asserts that Bridge II Sports is trying to get wheelchair basketball into a North Carolina college for him.
“I have four years till I go to college, so they say they’ll try to get it as quickly as possible,” he says.
But even colleges have limits in terms of what they can offer an athlete of Miles’ caliber and grit.
“They only have ten teams that play at their school, so only so many of them play each other,” he says. “They don’t have enough money. I mean, I’m pretty sure the school has enough money, they just don’t fund it for wheelchair basketball.”
So Miles raises his bar as high as he can, hoping to enter the Paralympics in 2016. His dad says he also has hopes to play professional wheelchair basketball in Italy.