Jason Wessels back on the court

by John Ring

It was the summer of 1997 at Carver Center.

During a hot day in an even hotter gym, Jason Wessels sat in the bleachers and was pumped up. His team -- which was to be the 1998 Silver Streaks-- had just gotten back from playing basketball in a summer tournament.

The Streaks had played in the championship game against Whitney Young High School of Chicago, which was projected to be not only a power house in Illinois but one of the best teams in the entire country. The fact that Galesburg had lost in overtime to Young didn't dampen Wessels' enthusiasm.

''We led by nine in the second half and that was without Steve [Glasgow] or Taylor [Thiel],'' said Jason.

Like much of Silver Streak Nation, Jason Wessels was looking forward to that season. Who wouldn't with Joey Range and Rod Thompson?

But it all fell apart months later when Wessels was fighting for his life at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, a victim of bacterial meningitis. Jason survived but lost his feet and hands to amputation.

''When we were at the hospital in Peoria, the doctor pulled me aside and told me that there was a 95 percent chance that Jason wouldn't make it,'' said Mike Miller, who coached the Streaks in 1998.

Wessels made it. He made it back to Thiel Gym later that season and was at Carver Arena in Peoria when, ironically, the Streaks met Whitney Young for the state championship.

''Five points,'' said Wessels last Saturday in Abingdon. ''We lost that game by just five points. That's three assists. I know I could have made a difference.''

Spoken like a true point guard.

And now, Jason Wessels is back on the basketball court, as an assistant coach with the Knoxville Blue Bullets.

''It feels real good,'' said Wessels. ''I was away for four years but now I'm back. It's not AA ball, it's not Galesburg basketball but it's high school basketball and that's what I love.''

Jason's jump back to basketball came through another 1998 connection -- teammate Kevin Heimann.

''I've always been close to Kevin and he introduced me to Casey Johnson, who is the sophomore coach at Knoxville. He talked to [Coach] Dean Betts and that was good because I've known Dean since I was a kid.''

''Jason's so smart about the game,'' said Betts ''and we run the same offense that he did with that 1998 team. It made it easy for Jason to step in and contribute and he's doing just that.''

''He always played like a coach on the floor and I'm sure that will translate into coaching success,'' said Miller. ''Jason is a fighter and I'm sure his teams will reflect that. Kids will respect his toughness and basketball knowledge. People forget what a great passer he was. He worked and worked on his game to make himself a quality point guard.''

Jason, who now lives with Johnson, loves working with the Bullets. ''It's a great feeling to be able to help in some way. There's nothing else I'd rather do. I can't go out and demonstrate the way to do things but I have the knowledge. I know how the offense is run. We've got some good players here. I'll tell you what, Tyler Gumm can play. He's a horse out there.''

''Jason shows these kids that you can get by obstacles,'' said Betts. ''My seniors remember that 1998 team. Everyone in this area followed them, they were that good. The younger kids don't remember that team but they took to Jason right away.''

Asked what's been his most rewarding experience so far, Wessels replied, ''More than anything it's been the Knoxville parents who have come up to me and thanked me for working with their kids.''

He also got a letter from Miller two weeks ago when the former Streaks coach found out about his new position. ''That really meant a lot to me because he's such a great coach,'' said Wessels. ''His record speaks for itself and he relates so well to young people.''

Wessels does what all assistant coaches doŠ keeps charts, checks things out at the scorer's table, breaks down the opposing defense and offers encouragement. Physically, Jason has filled out, is able to walk on his own and write down the all-important stats.

And now, today, Jason Wessels seems a lot like the Jason Wessels of 1997. Happy, enthusiastic and back where he belongs.

''After a game early this year, Jason was picking up in the locker room and I came in to help,'' said Coach Betts. ''He came over, shook my hand and said, 'Thanks for letting me back into the game.' It was one of those personal moments that mean so much. He was just beaming.''

Betts and Wessels will always be Silver Streaks in a way. They can never escape that nor do they want to. It's in their soul. But they've both made an investment in Knoxville to return the Bullets back to the days when they dominated the region in Class A basketball.

It's a good story. A good match.

And in a region dominated by economic woes and uncertainty, it's needed.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website February 1, 2003

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