Waller, a big Bulls fan who actually played baseball at Senn High School, was 18. He came from a blue-collar family with two parents and two brothers. Although he had graduated from high school, he admitted he had no ambition and no real game plan for his future beyond hanging out with his fellow gang members. He and a friend were sitting in a car when some rival gang members drove up and started shooting. A bullet pierced his spine and kidney. In trying to get away, the friend accidentally drove toward a hospital, which saved Waller’s life. But Waller wasn’t sure it was worth saving at first. “I thought my life was over,” he said.
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Ironically, he found he was a better athlete in a wheelchair than he had ever been out of a wheelchair. “When I was growing up in the ’hood, you needed to jump really well and be super-fast and superathletic, but in wheelchair basketball, your vertical leap isn’t that important,” Waller said, joking. Height is an advantage, because a player can hold the ball up that much higher while looking to shoot or pass or extend his arms that much higher on defense, but speed, strength and agility, including strong chair skills, are more important. “The difference between me before the wheelchair and me after the wheelchair, especially after I’d gone down to Illinois, is that I was the hardest-working guy on the team,” Waller said. “Nobody was going to outwork me. I’d become addicted to success. I’d finally learned that cause- and-effect relationship between hard work and results. It really fueled this desire to win and compete and this willingness to work harder than the rest.”