Guillaume Labat, one of the organizers of the “Apéro French in Chicago,” an event where Chicago’s French community mingles for drinks once a month, calls out: “Benjamin Chevillon!” On a Tuesday night in May, the small crowd packed in La Boulangerie—a French bakery in Lakeview—clears a path so Chevillon can receive his prize: a French flag. Prize winners are selected by drawing lots, but it feels like Chevillon’s name wasn’t picked at random.
Chevillon, 25, sticks out in a crowd. Not because he is in a wheelchair. Not because he is French, but because he is a French player for the Chicago Wheelchair Bulls, a team affiliated with the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and an off-shoot of the NBA.
Chevillon’s adventure began in January 2012, when he decided to email Chicago Wheelchair Bulls’ coach Dan Ferreira. He asked about the prospect of playing in the league. “A lot of international players enquire about the Chicago Wheelchair Bulls, but not many follow through,” Ferreira says. “But Ben followed through. We kept going back and forth.” In March 2012, Chevillon flew to Chicago so that Ferreira could assess his skills. “To be honest I thought Ben had good speed, good quickness, he had a desire–and I think this is the first thing I noticed with him–is that he had a desire to improve his game, which was one of his motivations to come to the U.S.,” Ferreira says. As for Chevillon, he viewed his meeting with Ferreira as a week of testing, but says he wasn’t anxious. “My life did not depend on the Chicago Bulls,” he recalls. “This may be the reason why this week of testing went so well, because I wasn’t pressuring myself.”
Chevillon flew back to France without an answer. “Keep in touch” Ferreira told him. When he received a letter of acceptance to play for the team in mid-April, he couldn’t believe it. “To play in a NBA franchise in the U.S. represents the Holy Grail for every French basketball player,” he says.
Chevillon was 17 years-old when he first encountered basketball. He longed to play a sport but wasn’t sure which one. “It was my mother who told me about wheelchair basketball,” Chevillon says. His mother heard of a gymnasium near their home in Dijon—a city in eastern France, known for its mustard—that offered wheelchair basketball. He decided to try it and “hasn’t left since then.”
His desire to play sports was triggered, in part, by his adolescent years in a wheelchair. Primary school and middle school “weren’t easy,” Chevillon recalls. It was at that point that wheelchair basketball came into his life. “Thank goodness it did,” he says. “This allowed me to realize I wasn’t alone, that there were handicapped people in even more advanced states than mine. On the basketball court, everybody is equal.”
Diagnosed with leukemia when he was 5 years-old , Chevillon was hospitalized one year and endured rounds of chemotherapy. He received injections in the chest and in the lower back. After an umpteenth injection, Chevillion’s body reacted badly; the nerve cells in his legs burned away. “My nerves destroyed themselves, they exploded, so I didn’t have any more nerve signals passing through my legs,” Chevillon says. For the first six months following the accident, he was a paraplegic. “I had no sensation in the legs.”
His parents took him to medical sessions, hoping to stimulate the remaining nerve cells in his legs. Months later, Chevillon started to regain partial use of his legs. He has an incomplete form of paraplegia, which means he cannot walk or run like regular people, but can stand and walk slowly, saying he has “almost no memory” of when he used to run.
He also says that, at 5 years old, he didn’t realize he was paralyzed. “I started realizing when I was a teenager, with the look of others,” he says. “It was complicated during this period.”
But then wheelchair basketball came into his life.
When Chevillon arrived in Chicago on September 18, he had been playing for six years on different basketball teams in France. For two months, he trained for the Wheelchair Bulls. A typical day: going to the pool in the morning, playing basketball in the afternoon, and going to the gym at night.
The season started the following November. “The hardest was to deal with the rhythm of the games,” Chevillon says. In France, he played between 20 and 25 games per season; with the Wheelchair Bulls he plays roughly 50 games, including playoffs.
Chevillon had to adapt to a different style of play. Coach Ferreira explains that in Europe Wheel Chair basketball is an individualized game; in the U.S. it’s team oriented. “I think he had a very high level of frustration when he first came,” Ferreira says.
Chevillon, though, assimilated with his teammates. “It was a good experience [to play with a Frenchman]. There were small things here and there that were different in his style of play, but he adjusted well throughout the year,” says Curtis Lease, one of Chevillon’s teammates. Lease has been playing for the Wheelchair Bulls for 10 seasons.
Ferreira says that his goal was to build on Chevillon’s strengths and then address the deficiencies to make him a more well-rounded player. And Chevillon has improved by learning to play a different style. “In my mind he’s a starter, and back in January/February that wasn’t the case and not because he wasn’t athletic, not because he wasn’t talented, mostly because our style and our game was very foreign from what he had been taught,” says Ferreira.
This past year, the Wheelchair Bulls played their first season in the premier league. They managed to rank 14th out of the 20 teams and qualified for the playoffs in Louisville, Kentucky. Although they lost in the first round against the Indiana Pacers, Chevillion cites it as a milestone “because the main goal was to be qualified for the playoffs,” he says.
A highlight of Chevillon’s experience with the Wheelchair Bulls is when the team played at the United Center, during halftime of a game between the Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks. “It was incredible. When you get into the arena, you realize that the best player of all time [Michael Jordan] played here, and you are over the moon,” Chevillon says.
But his greatest memory remains the All-Star Wheelchair Classic–the NWBA’s All-Star Game–that took place last February in Houston, at the same time and place as the NBA All-Star Game. Chevillon was chosen by the coaches to be one of the substitute players, making him the first Frenchman in history to play at the Wheelchair All-Star Game.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Chevillon says. “For a basketball player, being selected to play for the All-Star Game is one of the biggest recognitions from the profession that you can get.”
Ferreira says he pushed for Chevillon’s All-Star selection. Part of his decision was fueled by Chevillon’s huge improvement, what he describes as “decision making and communication.” “If you can play men to men defense, you can play with anybody, anytime, anywhere and be able to contribute. Ben’s one-on-one defense had improved a ton over the course of the season,” Ferreira adds.
Lease, who was also selected to represent the Wheelchair Bulls at the All-Star Game, says that, as a player, Chevillon may be young, but he is “definitely passionate about the game and seems to have a desire to be a better player.”
Chevillon had the opportunity to meet some of the best professional basketball players at the All-Star game, who admire and respect wheelchair basketball players, Chevillon says. “Because we only have our shoulders and the upper body. When we shoot, our shoulders are already tired because they have had to push the wheelchair,” he says.
Chevillon shares funny anecdotes that he will probably keep in mind for a long time. “In Houston for the All-Star Game, I was coming back from a party. It was around 4 a.m. I had been partying and I hear in the hall of the hotel, ‘Hey Ben! How did the game go?’ and it was Yannick Noah [a former French professional tennis player and father of Bulls center Joakim Noah]. I couldn’t believe it. I can rest in peace now. Yannick Noah remembers me,” Chevillon tells me.
Chevillon says it’s nice to be among the three French basketball players, with Noah and Tony Parker, to have been selected to play at the All-Star Game. But he still manages to keep his head on his shoulders. “My parents and my family are proud of me, but I am not idolized either,” he says. “And that’s good because it allows me to keep my feet on the ground.”
In August, Chevillon will go back to France, and says he tries not to think about it.
“I love France but I have another perspective just because of the fact that I am in a wheelchair and that, for me, it’s much easier to live in the U.S. than in France, so we will see how the re-adaptation goes,” he says.
In fact, Chevillon says that being in a wheelchair and living in the U.S. is “200% to 300% easier,” than France because more places are wheelchair accessibile. But he also thinks that Americans are much more open to the handicapped than the French. “The other day, this guy stopped me in the street to tell me that my Bulls wheelchair was great. This would never happen in France!” Chevillon explains.
And Chevillon says he hopes that his adventure in Chicago will allow him to give advice to French associations and to the French government in order to improve things in terms of wheelchair access over there. “I would like to change the image of the handicap in France,” he says.
As he continues talking about the difficulties he will have in leaving this dream life, Chevillon takes a step back and keeps his usual optimism and determination. “All good things come to an end,” he says. “And anyway, one day I’ll come back! I swore to myself that one day I would come back!”