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Former wheelchair basketball player created sports club for disabled athletes to ‘pay it forward’

By Matthew Dietz
NKyTribune sports reporter 

At the age of 19, six years after a disabling injury that confined him to a wheelchair, Jacob Counts randomly met a man who asked if he had any interest in playing wheelchair football.

Counts took the man up on his offer and what began as a recreational activity became a life-altering decision for the Holmes High School graduate. He dabbled in numerous other wheelchair sports, including tennis and softball, before ultimately playing the sport that he instantly fell in love with — basketball.

Cincinnati Dragons coach Jacob Counts, left, poses with player Gabe Taylor after the team won a national championship. (Photo from team Twitter page)

Counts played wheelchair basketball for 18 years on the recreational, collegiate, international and professional levels.  After retiring as a player in 2013, he returned home and started the Greater Cincinnati Adapted Sports Club (GCASC) to provide recreational opportunities for other disabled athletes.

The first recreational team Counts played on was the Cincinnati Slammers. He rapidly became a rising star in the region and was recruited to play at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which led to a four-year stint on the US National Team from 2007-2010 and a professional career overseas.

Counts said attending Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he majored in human performance and recreation, was one of the best decisions of his life.

“I was really lucky that the guys I came in with and the players that were already there, that we had a really good team, and we were pretty successful,” he said.

After his college career ended, Counts played wheelchair basketball professionally in Italy for five years with teams based in in Rome and Taranto.

Following his retirement, Counts returned home to find there was no longer an adult wheelchair basketball team in the Greater Cincinnati area, and there had never been a junior team. That’s why he started the GCASC in 2014 with the help of Ian Smith, who Counts grew up with, and Ian Lynch, a former teammate at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Once the GCASC non-profit organization was up and running, Counts and the rest of the staff went to work on their main goal. They created a coed youth basketball program called the Cincinnati Dragons that has teams in the 18-under and 14-under age divisions.

“That was a need we identified that wasn’t being served,” Counts said about the Dragons. “Too many people helped me along the way to possibly pay them back, so the only option at that point was to try to pay it forward.”

Jacob Counts

The Dragons are funded almost entirely by outside sources. There’s a link on the gcasc.org website for online donations.

“We try to make sure that money is not a barrier for any players, so we do a lot of fundraising,” Counts said.

One of the club’s core values is “using sports as a vehicle to challenge our athletes to push themselves and each other to develop a depth and breadth of skills in all aspects of life.”

As one of the coaches for the Dragons, Counts enjoys watching each player go through an individualized journey of becoming the best that they can be.

“Not everyone is going to be a star, and then some kids are going to be stars,” he said. “So seeing them, whether they’re at the bottom of my rotation or one of my starters, just making those individual strides where they’re developing their skills and getting better at basketball and developing that love for basketball.”

A couples of weeks ago, the Dragons won the National Wheelchair Basketball Association 18-under national tournament in Wichita, Kan. In the title game, they defeated Atlanta, 55-50, in overtime to finish off a perfect 28-0 season.

The Dragons had two award-winning players. Alex Hilgeford was named the tournament’s most valuable  player and Gabe Taylor received the championship game MVP award.

“The Greater Cincinnati Adapted Sports Club means a lot to me,” said Taylor, who lives in Augusta. “It has given me a chance to play the game I love while having the ability to compete with people who are in the same situation as me.”

Counts was proud of the way his team battled through adversity during the season, including the pandemic, and the character the players displayed during their championship run.

“We had a really talented team,” Counts said. “We had kids hitting the same age at the same time, which was really useful, but I think more than that they just worked super hard this year,” Counts said.

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