Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #13 The Tournament That Created A Community


The “Wheel It Forward” Tournament

The clinic’s turnout convinced Jim and Alan that there was a real need for a physical outlet for persons with disabilities. Putting on a tournament seemed like the next logical but ambitious step. Since Brian was completely sold on the sport—he bought his own sports wheelchair, which handled “like a Porsche”—in December 2013 they sent him to the Wichita tournament as an observer. There Brian witnessed something else that deep down he truly wanted and needed: camaraderie, collegiality, and the opportunity to network with other athletes.

After observing in Wichita, Brian played in the tournament in Lincoln in August, 2014 and a few months later in Wichita. He briefed Jim and Alan on how those tournaments were run, and became the goodwill ambassador for the Kansas City tourney.

Having been briefed by Brian, Jim, Alan and other volunteers went to work on gathering the sponsors needed to underwrite their event. Jason Grubb, the owner and general manager of the six-court indoor Northland Racquet Club, generously donated the courts for the tournament. Over a dozen other sponsors and donors in the KC community kicked in thousands of dollars.

On Friday morning, April 10, 2015, with donuts, coffee, water, bananas, and other treats (no M&Ms or KitKats—sorry, Jim) spread out on tables in a small reception area, Alan welcomed eighteen inspired athletes to the First Annual “Wheel It Forward” Wheelchair Tennis Tournament. During the three days of the tournament the participants, no matter the skill level, played as worthy athletes, not victims of bad luck or fate. Jim made sure each of us understood that.

Pushing Through the Dark Space

Brian had finally come out of the shadows he had been in since the trauma of his accident. “I’m back in the game.” That he was.

Today, Brian’s life narrative is enriched and sustained by the broader narrative of the wheelchair tennis community. You see, the Wheel It Forward tournament was not just a competition where athletes won or lost matches. It created a space for the celebration of life. Brian says, “The saying, ‘We’re all in this together’ is never more true than in the wheelchair tennis community. We share collective community. When you don’t show up at a tournament, people notice, people care.”

Although Brian’s will power helped him reach his new space, he didn’t do it alone. Many other persons with their own life’s narratives guided Brian to the door between the two spaces—his family, friends, doctors, nurses, and therapists.

But there were two key life narratives that came together with Brian’s to wheel him forward via a tennis ball flying over a net in a tennis club in Kansas City. One was that of Alan Klaus, whose narrative as an adult began with a play on a high school football field in Beatrice, Nebraska.  The other was that of Jim Pfeffer, whose narrative began in Manitowoc, Wisconsin as he watched his high school tennis team practice while he crunched on candy. Whether it was the candy or surviving the Ice Bowl, Jim was at the heart of the collective space inhabited by the individual narratives of this story. Alan told me, “It would be very accurate to say that without Jim there would be no Wheel It Forward. Someone once told me that they would be afraid to tell Jim they wanted to play tennis on the moon because by the next week he would have the rocket ship booked!”


My game had improved since the Cajun Classic. I was more mobile and had a stronger stroke. I won one game—one game, not a set—in a round robin against three other quads: Taylor Graham, a young man from Lincoln who was in a motorcycle accident, Grady Landrum, a veteran player from Wichita who got smashed up in a car accident years ago, and Nick Taylor. I had no chance against Grady and Nick. Grady had perfected a sliced serve that I couldn’t handle, and Nick  . . . well, he had pity on me. I played some good balls against Taylor. Both of us were still getting use to using our quad-limited bodies to play the game effectively. I had to bow out of the second set because I developed severe pain in my taped-up hand. No, I wasn’t faking it!

The best part of the tournament was when Nick came over to me after my match against him and showed me how to effectively pivot to play a forehand. Most players have a stronger forehand than backhand. So when able-bodied players get a chance they will quickly shuffle into the forehand position. To mimic this in a wheelchair, you have to push yourself away from the ball and then turn into it. Nick got behind me with his motorized chair and pushed my chair through the maneuver. Nick Taylor touched my chair! I’m never going to wash it!

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #12 Finding the Roadrunner

Here’s the next excerpt from chapter three of my book about how a wheelchair tennis tournament came into being. But that’s the superficial story. More compelling is the subtext about how the individual narratives of Alan and Jim connected to create a broader narrative that would save Brian from falling irretrievably into the abyss.

Alan and Jim Link Up

After joining the Northland Racquet Club, Alan and Jim became good friends, the friendship nurtured in part by club-sponsored trips they took together. It wasn’t long before the duo became leaders of a group at the club that developed a tradition of holding yearly fundraisers for various causes, ranging from assistance for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti to support for the Global Orphan Project. It quickly became apparent to Alan that Jim was “loved and respected by everyone and known by all.” He had a way of making those around him feel important and valuable, a trait that would earn Jim a place in the Heart of America Tennis Hall of Fame.

Brainstorming Leads to a Wheelchair Tennis Clinic

At the beginning of 2013, the group started brainstorming on what project they would support for that year. One of the group’s members suggested doing something to support wheelchair tennis, noting that the USTA wanted to support and grow the sport.   Great! So . . . now what? Hey, how about a documentary about wheelchair tennis! It could be filled with so many compelling stories! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Not. They couldn’t find donors to foot the bill. Okay, let’s see . . . how about . . . some sort of wheelchair tennis event, like a clinic! Yes, that’s it! Awesome! Uh . . . well . . . how exactly . . . Don’t you need people to attend the clinic? And how do we find sports wheelchairs? They’re not exactly cheap.

Recruiting Nick Taylor

As to the first question, they contacted Nick Taylor in Wichita. Nick’s life direction was first decided in his mother’s womb, when he was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that results in limbs being permanently fixed in a way that restricts movement, in Nick’s case pretty severely.  But check this out: He just happens to be one of the highest ranked quad players nationally and globally. And he plays in a motorized wheelchair. How sick is that! A tireless promoter of wheelchair tennis, Nick said he would love to attend the clinic to help draw participants. But he told the Northland group not to worry too much about the numbers. The clinic would be a success if only one or two players showed up. As to the second question, the group received a grant to buy a couple of sports wheelchairs.

Finding the Roadrunner

The first potential participant they thought of was Brian, the roadrunner. But where was he? Two weeks before the clinic, Jim tried calling Brian using the number he had used years earlier when Brian participated in the “hit and run” clinic. Brian didn’t answer. Jim left a message, “If this is you, Brian, we want you to let you know that we’re putting on a tennis clinic.”

Brian didn’t return the call. After the accident, he dropped off the tennis radar screen. It was as if he moved away from Kansas City. He lived life in the shadows, even avoiding reflections of himself in a wheelchair as he rolled past store windows. He steered clear of large crowds because he felt nobody could see him. He was invisible. And even if he wasn’t, people had to look down at him to talk. Were they thinking the same thing of him that before May 31st, 2002 he had thought of people in wheelchairs? Pity? Dismissive of him as a full human being? Brian actually ran into Jim a few years before the clinic. The instant Jim saw Brian, the roadrunner, in a wheelchair, a great wave of shock and sadness washed over him. Brian explained the accident to Jim and said he had no reason to go to Northland because he had become paralyzed from the waist down.

But Brian eventually did decide to attend the clinic, if only out of respect for Jim. They held it in April, 2013. Fifteen people attended. The participants’ physical challenges varied from birth conditions, to accidents, to persons who had contracted a disease. Nick Taylor brought inspiration and energy to the clinic, telling the participants that they would miss the ball a lot but that’s how most experienced players started.  Jim’s challenge as a coach was to keep the participants engaged, some of whom had never played the sport, whether in a wheelchair or on their legs like Brian. Jim had the newbies stationed just two feet away from the net. Just as Nick had predicted, they missed a lot.

Brian was hesitant to play, wanting to avoid looking like a “spastic.” Then he hit the tennis ball with the racquet’s sweet spot. The ball sailed over the net. And as Jim said of all the players in the clinic who did the same thing for the first time, “it was like they had just won Wimbledon.”


Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #11 Jim Pfeffer: The Tennis Pro Who Loved KitKat

17362767_1273127996140491_9074616108585345263_nIn my previous post, I introduced you to Alan Klaus, a fellow whose life narrative would take him to Kansas City, the town where Brian would encounter the trauma of becoming a paraplegic. Here I introduce you to one Jim Pfeffer, who along with Alan, would become an integral part of, and give meaning to, Brian’s life narrative. Here’s the continuation of chapter three of my book:

About 663 miles northeast of Beatrice, Nebraska lies Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan, known for its construction of World War II submarines. There, one Jim Pfeffer began his trajectory in tennis in 1964 when his mother, thinking he needed more to do in the summers, signed him up for four tennis lessons. She had no clue, of course, that nudging her twelve-year-old to play the sport would ultimately result in a passionate tennis pro, whose commitment to the person holding the tennis racquet was just as important as teaching him how to play—whether on his feet or in a wheelchair.

Jim’s Narrative        

Jim enjoyed sports but tennis was not first on the list when he was a kid. He loved basketball and football—he was crazy enough to go the epic battle at Lambeau Field between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys in 1967, a game that would be dubbed “the Ice Bowl” because of the game time’s temperature of -15 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of -48. I just can’t wrap my head around that . . .

Four tennis lessons. That’s right, FOUR. That’s all the twelve-years-old needed to eventually become a beloved club tennis pro. You see, Jim was a visual learner: He regularly ran home from high school, bought M&Ms and KitKat at the corner store, and then situated himself near the school’s tennis courts to watch the high school team play. That was enough for the candy lover to start teaching the game at a rec center in Manitowoc when he was sixteen. From there, the shy kid (scarred for life after attending the Ice Bowl?) grew into a confident young man who never looked back. While in college he coached summer camps all over the country, including a couple of summers at Hotchkiss, the elite prep school in Connecticut. Tennis was booming in the U.S. and Jim was caught up in it, at one very memorable point getting to meet Arthur Ashe in 1968, the U.S. Open Champion that year.

Jim moved to Kansas City in 1976 with his first wife. After a traumatic divorce, “the lowest part of my life,” his life blossomed. On the personal side, he married again, 2016 marking thirty years of marriage to his wife, Jane. And he has four grandchildren to boot. On the professional side, soon after he arrived in KC he landed a job with the Barry Brooke Tennis Club and taught there for seventeen years. Once in a while, he saw this fellow Alan Klaus on the courts. The guy was pretty good. Jim didn’t coach Alan—he didn’t need coaching—but he saw him now and then at the club’s social functions.  “Hey, Alan.” “Hey, Jim.”


Jim Meets the Roadrunner

In 1996, most of Barry Brooke’s members, including Alan, left for the newly-built Northland Racquet Club, with Jim as the head tennis pro. Soon after setting up shop there, Jim started a “hit and run” clinic on Saturday mornings. One morning, a fellow by the name of Brian McMillan showed up to play. “He was like a road runner. He ran down everything.”

And then the road runner disappeared . . .

The World of Document Review #3 Diversity Rocks! Maybe Not.

Having whipped myself into a frenzy in my last post, I’ll try to stay calm this time as I continue to explore the question whether we should celebrate the very diverse pop-up law firm of contract attorneys doing document review work. And like I said, we won’t really understand the subtext of the pop-up narrative unless we understand the meta-narrative that created it.

To set this up I’m going to use an interesting 2015 paper by Rhode and Ricca titled, “Diversity in the Legal Profession: Perspectives from Managing Partners and General Counsel,” as well as a bit of stuff from the 2016 National Association for Law Placement (NALP) report on diversity in law firms. Rhode and Ricca surveyed the top dogs at large law firms and Fortune 100 corporations to explore why, despite professed commitments to diversity, “women and minorities are grossly underrepresented at the top and overrepresented at the bottom.” The stats for women are abysmal, especially for law firms. Here, though, I’m going to focus on minorities. And although the survey covers in-house corporate legal counsel, I’m going to look only at large law firms. Here are some of the authors’ stats:

  • “Although blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans now constitute about one-third of the population and one-fifth of law school graduates, they still only account for fewer than 7 percent of law firm partners. The situation is particularly bleak for African Americans, who constitute only 3 percent of law firm partners.”
  • “In major law firms, about half of lawyers of color leave within three years.”
  • “Attrition is highest for women of color; about 75 percent depart by their fifth year and 85 percent before their seventh.”
  • “Compensation in law firms is lower for lawyers of color, with minority women at the bottom of the financial pecking order.”

The NALP report shows little improvement in the numbers (though larger firms fair better than smaller ones).

So what gives? The authors describe various diversity initiatives in large law firms, and yet the numbers are abysmal. Some common responses by the interviewees and my responses:

“Fierce competition” for a limited pool of hotshots. The corporate clients of law firms steal them away. Trying to hire laterally is really hard because firms don’t want to see their hotshots leave for fear of getting bad grades for diversity. LAME: This reason suggests that lawyers of color are treated as scarce commodities, window dressing that firms desperately fight for. You took my mannequin of color! Not fair!

Some blame “the pipeline:” law schools aren’t doing their job to produce diverse talented graduates. LAME: Yeah, I’ve noted that law schools aren’t diverse enough. But the minority students who are there can be very talented. That won’t matter, though, because they’re not in the 10 percent of their class—for reasons I’ve told you about. Large law firms won’t touch them. Why? Because firms have their own resumes—go to any firm website. Firms have to show their clients they hire only the best and the brightest, using an arbitrary grade cut-off as a proxy.

Some blame society. SUPER LAME: Just because our society is structurally racist doesn’t mean law firms have to be that way. If lawyers in the firm gripe that their minority colleagues don’t belong there, call them out and demand they provide reasoned explanations for their complaints—or maybe just tell them to hit the bricks. Yeah, hit the bricks, pal.

But wait, you say, it’s not conscious racism that’s the major problem, but pernicious unconscious racism that we have to worry about. NOT LAME: Rhode points to an eye-opening study about this. Check this out: A pool of law firm partners were asked to evaluate a legal memo. Half of them were told the memo was written by a white guy and the others were told the author was a black guy. Result: The black guy’s memo received inferior evaluations. What’s new, right?  Persons of color have to deal with unconscious racism in law school—and lots of other places.

Some blame where they’re located, which might not interest lawyers of color. NOT SO LAME: This was a problem I saw when I taught at Iowa. The state of Iowa is so not diverse. Many of my students of color from other states couldn’t fathom living in Iowa after graduation. In many cases, out-of-state students, minorities or not, wanted to return to their home states and towns. Even the native Iowans often took off to other states. The brain-drain problem.

The NALP survey gives us some numbers on the geographic issue. Nothing personal against Kentucky, but let’s compare that state to D.C. The percentage of minority partners in Kentucky is 2.2 percent as compared to 9.07 percent in D.C. The percentage of minority women partners, 0.56 as compared to 3.39. As to associates, minorities in Kentucky firms come in at 12.3 percent as compared to 22.31 in D.C. The percentage of minority women, 6.92 as compared 12.37.

Still, firms have all sorts of ways to incentivize minority grads too join them, even in Iowa and Kentucky, like giving them yachts. How do you think University of Iowa recruited a Chicago Boy like me? I still have the yacht on my bookshelf.

Some blame the difficulty finding the right work/life balance. LAME: Get rid of billable hours, i.e., the number of hours lawyers are expected to bill in a year in pursuit of profit. Because of clients’ demands for lower bills, that will happen eventually. Until then, those who have a life will get shunned. Those that don’t may well become three-times-divorced alcoholics with bad breath and constipation problems.

Let’s get back to that ballroom where about 200 very diverse contract lawyers came together in a pop-up law firm to receive orientation for a huge document review project. Oh, I didn’t mention the trainers for the orientation: large law firms. The trainers were virtually all white, although I was heartened to see lots of women. The partner who showed up to give us the big picture: a white male.

You see, the pop-up law firm was like Gary, the African American who seemed to be leading a good life until we realized he existed in the meta-narrative of a food desert that was a manifestation of racism.

Most of the contract lawyers in the ballroom seemed really happy.

Most of those lawyers wouldn’t have a chance in hell of becoming associates or partners in large law firms.

Wait a second, you say. Did you ever think that many of those contract attorneys might not want to work in a large law firm?? Walking zombies representing evil corporations?? Huh?? Huh??

Put down the Red Bull.

You ask a good question.

Don’t condescend.


Why am I talking to myself?

Anyway, I might be engaging in the same commodification that I just condemned: I don’t care about the minority lawyers as human beings. I just want to see more minority bodies in large law firms.

But wouldn’t we want to live in a world where lawyers of color would have real opportunities to work in Big Law, and choose not to go down that path?


Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #10 The War Zone

Like Brian and Alan, I came face to face with violence, the violence of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I felt like I was in a war zone, and the other patients in the ICU were my fellow combatants. Although we had different injuries resulting from combat, we were fighting the same enemy: death. As my pacemaker, the dopamine drip, the steroids, the antibiotics, the feeding tube, the ventilator, the cooling bed, and the medical staff kept me alive, I listened as nurses and doctors visited the other wounded soldiers.

Sometime after I was admitted, another soldier came in, a young man who had been in a motorcycle accident. When the nurses happened to angle me just right on my bed, I could see into his room on occasion—my eyesight had returned by then. He was smashed up pretty badly with an apparent head injury, his head almost completely taped up. Like me, he was “tubed up.” I could overhear that he had tubes in his chest to drain blood and fluid from his lungs. Sometimes he would yell out something incomprehensible. I wasn’t sure he even knew he was doing it.

I began to root for him. Whenever I came to, I hoped that I could see him or, if I couldn’t, at least hear staff attending to him. “Stay alive!” I shouted at him from inside myself. I quickly realized that I needed him to make it because if he could do it, I could, too. We could survive the brutal war zone together. “We can do it! Just hang on! Stay with me!”

But one afternoon, I saw nurses and doctors rushing in and out of his room.


It seemed like just moments later his family flooded into his room.

No, no!

They closed the door.

“Fight, goddammit!”

Then he coded.

The shrieks and wails of shock and loss pierced every corner of the ward.

“You fuck, you sorry-ass fuck, why couldn’t you hold on?? Why??”

At that moment, I felt so alone.

And so frightened that I wouldn’t make it out of the war zone.