Jontee's story - early mornings and hard work all worth it
National Disability Insurance Scheme participant, Jontee Brown, is the embodiment of the National Wheelchair Basketball League – the sacrifices competitors make to play, the thrown-in-the-deep-end improvement demanded, and the way the game hooks them in so they can't get enough.
"It's rough when the alarm goes off at 3am but when you get to play on the weekends and see the things you're improving in, it's worth it," Jontee said of his twice-weekly, middle-of-the-night rise in Bendigo to drive to Melbourne for training.
"I had maybe two weeks off over Christmas but since then I've trained non-stop, trying to be the best player I can," he said.
At 20, Jontee has a wonderful role model in training partner Tristan Knowles, a veteran of three Australian Paralympic campaigns and two world championship wins. The two are Kilsyth Cobras teammates (the sole Victorian team in the national competition), and Jontee is already feeling the benefit of their work.
"He's one of the world's best players. To learn from him has been amazing," he said.
After falling in a sinkhole on a school trip to Thailand three years ago, Jontee developed an infection to a leg wound, which ate away his knee muscles. It eventually moved to his spine. He had played junior basketball since he was a child and found taking to the court in a wheelchair hugely liberating.
"It was something to keep my mind off things, and a way to get back into competitive sport," he said. "I kind of fell in love with it."
When the Cobras' season started with a "cluster" round (playing four games across a weekend), in Perth recently, he found himself playing on wheelchair basketball great, Brad Ness.
"He towelled me up a bit," Jontee said with a laugh, adding the experience highlighted "how awesome" the national competition is.
It's also a triumph of determination over logistics. Cobras' Basketball Operations Chief, Mark Watkins said it costs around $90,000 per season to send men's and women's wheelchair teams around the country without players having to fork out for travel, accommodation and living expenses.
"They are the elite in their field and they deserve to be treated accordingly," Mark said.
"We don't get big crowds but the people who do come along appreciate the skills the guys and girls have. They're unbelievable! Unless you know Basketball, you wouldn't appreciate what they can do in their chairs.
"They get the same clothing as our SEABL [South East Australian Basketball League] teams, the same funding, and there's no discrimination," he said.