Ray Werner: Wheelchair basketball pioneer

By Jane Rogers
Blue jacket with yellow sleeves, buttons, zippers, and details. Patch on left says "EWBA Champions."

William "Ray" Werner joined the Marine Corps on December 8, 1941. Two years later Ray's mother received the official Marine Corps letter dated September 14, 1943, which read, "My dear Mrs. Warner: . . . your son, Private First class William R. Werner, Jr. U.S. Marine Corp Reserve, sustained a fracture of the third lumbar vertebrae on 20 July 1943 and was transferred to a hospital on 7 August 1943 for further medical treatment." Ray had been hit in the back by a Japanese sniper in the battle of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands and received the Purple Heart for his injuries. Ray would never walk again.

Letter on stationery from Headquarters of US Marine Corps. to Mrs. Werner.

On his three-week journey across the Pacific on a medical transport ship, Ray made the choice to live his life as fully as possible. A testament to Ray's character, he had been in good spirits from the beginning of his ordeal. A chaplain wrote Ray's parents seven days after their son had sustained his injury: "The wound is serious enough to make it necessary for Ray to dictate his letters, but his general condition is good. . . . Ray is in excellent spirits." Ray had even dictated a tongue-in-cheek letter to the chaplain explaining his injury, "Dear Mother, I have been a little busy picking up souvenirs. Will write longer letter when I have more time."

Letter begins "Dear Mother..."

Ray was sent to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, to recover from his wounds and learn to live life from a wheelchair. One of his nurses, Mary Catherine Haines, took a special interest in Ray and in 1945 would become his wife—funny how life turns out sometimes. A positive outlook was imperative to Ray's successful recovery. A gifted athlete throughout high school, Ray played football, basketball, and polo at Bogota High in his hometown of Bogota, New Jersey. It was this athleticism that made him a perfect candidate for a new series of rehabilitation programs initiated by the federal government.

Black and white photo of two men, shirtless, laying on hospital beds and lifting up their bodies to play pool at a pool table. Another soldier in uniform stands behind them.

Man sits up on bed with braces on legs. Female nurse attends.

Before World War II, a spinal cord injury was thought to be a death sentence. Advances in medicine during the war allowed for physical recovery, but it was depression brought on by such devastating injuries that often rendered the patient hopeless. By 1946 veterans hospitals were inundated with patients with traumatic injuries that required continuous emotional and physical therapy. These hospitals began devising ways for their patients to get the therapy and exercise needed for their injuries, but in a way that was fun and sustainable after their time at the hospital was through.

Blue jacket with yellow sleeves, buttons, zippers, and details. Patch on left says "EWBA Champions."

Reverse side of above jacket

Wheelchair basketball seemed to be the sport of choice among many of the veterans because they were familiar with the mechanics of the game, which could be done from a seated position. Within two years of its inception, discharged vets spread the game throughout the nation, with six teams emerging to represent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. In 1946 the National Wheelchair Basketball Association was formed and held its first National Tournament in 1948.

Black and white photo of men playing basketball in wheelchairs

Ray Werner became captain of the Jersey Wheelers, the second civilian team established for the 1948–1949 season. Wheelchair basketball follows the same rules as intercollegiate basketball, although wheelchair players are allowed six seconds in the "bucket" instead of three and 20 seconds over the center line instead of the college-regulation 10 seconds. Dribbling is executed in the same manner, although a player is allowed to hold the ball in his or her lap and advance play by means of the wheelchair; however, the player can only push through two turns, and then must resume dribbling.

Fabric square with "Jersey Wheelers 4 Ray Werner" text in red and blue

Ray started the 1948 season as a forward, playing in 24 games and becoming the leading scorer with 212 points. The Wheelers played to small crowds of about 200 people at the local junior high school gymnasium that first year. By 1952 the crowds at certain venues had grown to 1,000 spectators, and wheelchair basketball soon became the number one sport of individuals with disabilities.

Under the leadership of Ray Werner, the Wheelers won the sixth annual National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in 1954. The slogan for the tournament was "Ability Not Disability Counts!" and included the organization’s purpose, ". . . to foster and promote wheelchair basketball as an aid to the physical and social readjustment of the handicapped . . ."

Man in wheelchair repairing another wheelchair, holding a tool in his mouth

Ray took these words to heart and helped veterans in his professional life as well. After having to wait six weeks to have a broken axle on his wheelchair repaired, Ray decided to start a wheelchair repair business. In 1950 he landed a contract with the Veterans Administration to travel throughout the state of New Jersey to provide veterans with disabilities with wheelchair repair in their homes and to install hand controls in their cars to allow people who have paraplegia to drive. According to his grandson, David Hoff, "Ray was instrumental in helping disabled vets get jobs, be more socially connected, and more active in their lives."

Downhill skiing was another sport embraced by those with disabilities and its inclusion in adaptive sports can be attributed to Jim Winthers, another World War II veteran. Jim belonged to the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, whose members were trained in mountain warfare, specifically to fight in arctic conditions. After the war, he used his specialized training to create a program in adaptive skiing to help out many of his fellow veterans who had lost limbs or had been paralyzed in the war.

Standing man with microphone speaks to crowd. Man in wheelchair holds award in hand.

Ray played on the Wheelers for many years and had the honor of participating in the first Paralympics that included war veterans from the United States. His contribution to the sport of wheelchair basketball and his involvement with other disabled veterans and people with disabilities was his passion and his legacy. Ray lived his life with determination and resilience, with Mary and their two children in Westwood, New Jersey, until his death in 1991. He was 74 years old and is buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Jane Rogers is an associate curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts.