Illinois Wheelchair Athletics Alumni Podcast: Episode 1—Kim Pollock
- Matt Buchi
- Wheelchair Basketball
- Wheelchair Sports
- Tim Nugent
- Division of Disability Resources & Educational Services
- College of Applied Health Sciences
- University of Illinois
On this episode, Coach Matt Buchi was able to kick off the podcast with Kim Pollock. Kim attended Illinois from 1966-1971 and in that time, he was a part of two national championship teams and won countless wheelchair game medals. We talked about his start with adaptive sports, his success in multiple sports throughout his career at Illinois and how being a part of the Gizz Kids team impacted his life.
MATT BUCHI: Hello, Illini friends, family and fans. I'm Coach Buchi. And this is the first episode of the Illinois Wheelchair Athletics Alumni Podcast, where we have conversations with alumni and relive their Illini experience. On this episode, I was able to kick off the podcast with Kim Pollack. Kim attended Illinois from 1966 to 1971 and in that time was a part of two national championship teams and won countless wheelchair game medals. Here's my conversation with number 54, Kim Pollack. Kim, thank you for joining me on this and having a conversation about your experiences at Illinois. And I want to just jump in from the very beginning because I think your path coming to Illinois started at a very young age. Growing up in Southern California, you contracted polio at the age of five. What was it like growing up in Southern California in that time and experiencing polio?
KIM POLLOCK: I got polio at such a young age that I really didn't know a lot of what a, quote, "normal" life was. And so for me, that was my normal was crutches and braces. And polios as a category tend to be overachievers because they're always trying to prove themselves. So that was my case, I guess.
And you just try and go out and do everything. I was always the handicapped kid in class, in schools. And I was always the kid with a disability. And so I'm sure that had some impact on me.
And I think for many years, my parents kept sending me to doctors and thinking that there was going to be a magic cure out there. And so we tried all different kinds. I even had Oral Roberts put his hand on my head and pray for me and so thinking that was going to cure me. But obviously none of that worked. And at one point, my parents just said, you know what? Just let him go out, and so they bought a bicycle. And I went out and started trying to be a normal kid at that point. So we left California for the East Coast when I was 12 and moved around quite a bit since then. It was nothing memorable, but it was a good childhood. I don't have any regrets on it.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. So when you interacted with other kids without disabilities and interacted with any kind of activities, you didn't interact with any adaptive sports. So did you participate in able-bodied sports? Or when did you get involved in adaptive sports?
KIM POLLOCK: So I was on the little League Baseball team for a while. And I would get to bat when the score was 20 to 0, either way. Either we were winning by 20 or we were losing by 20. Then they'd put me in to bat and have someone run for me. And so that was-- but I got to wear the uniform. And I really was proud of that.
But then during high school, I was a manager on the basketball team. So I got to fold towels and sit on the bench. And that was my way of connecting with sports. And I did that for the football team as well. So I did that in one school, then was changed to move to Chicago. And that's where I did it in my senior year of high school with the football and the basketball team in Chicago. And so that was as close to sports as I really got. I always enjoyed swimming, but I never competed. And I don't think I ever shot a basketball. I may have stayed on the floor and tried a couple of times.
But when you're on crutches and braces, you just can't-- at least I couldn't get any kind of the stats that would let me take any kind of a decent shot. And I don't know whether I told you this story or not. But my high school coach in Chicago, when I had decided to go to the University of Illinois-- I'll circle back to that in a second. But when I was going into the University of Illinois, he called. He knew the coach, the football coach down there at the time.
So he called down and got me a job as a student manager on the Fighting Illini football team. And, man, I was on cloud nine. Here it was a Big Ten school going [INAUDIBLE]. I was going to be a manager on the football team. And I thought this is really special.
And I got down on my new student week. We went in a week early. And I did not go-- most disabled kids had to go through what we called the rehab center at the time and get admitted through that program. And I didn't even know about the program. I had no idea that Illinois had the adaptive sports program. It was just a state school, and I was in Chicago.
And so I ended up on campus. And I was walking around during that new student week. And there were four guys out playing wheelchair basketball at an outdoor court. And I had never seen that. I never even knew that existed.
So I went over there. And one of them was Tom Brown and a couple of the other people. And they scrounged up a chair for me and said, try this out. Well, I fell in love with it. And they were just getting ready to kick off football season at the time. We had a very active wheelchair football program. And so I had a choice to make. Either I was going to be a manager and fold towels and jock straps, or I was going to go play some sports. And so that took me about three seconds to make a decision.
But I'll never forget calling up the coach and telling him that I was not going to be a manager on a Fighting Illini Football team. And I never looked back after that obviously. So that was my introduction to adaptive sports. I had never heard of it before. I had no idea it existed. And it was that chance encounter. When you look back in your life, man, sometimes you look back on two or three decisions that you make that you don't realize at the time affect your life from that point forward. And two of the decisions that stand out in my mind was, one, deciding to go into engineering over math. Math had a foreign language requirement. And I did not want to do any foreign languages. I had struggled with that. And so I chose engineering.
And the other one was picking Illinois and being from Chicago. And those two decisions affected the rest of my life. And I didn't realize at the time how monumental those decisions were. And so I just sometimes wonder what life would have been like otherwise. It would have been very different.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. And I would love to talk more about those two decisions, too, and the first one being for you picking engineering. Obviously, you had to be doing really well academically to be able to come to Illinois and to be a part of the engineering program, being that our program here, and has been for a long time, has been incredible engineering program. So what got you into engineering? What was the reasoning behind attending Illinois to study it?
KIM POLLOCK: So as I said, we moved a bit when I was younger. And one of my moves was from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma and then from Oklahoma back to Pennsylvania. And during the Oklahoma back to Pennsylvania move, in Oklahoma, they offered algebra in seventh grade. I can't remember.
But anyway, and I was OK in math. I was doing OK. But Pennsylvania didn't offer it until eighth grade. So I went back and I repeated a year of algebra without being intended to do that. But that's just the way their curriculum was laid out.
Well, then I got an A. And from that point on, math came very easy to me. And so when I got through high school, I thought, well, maybe a math degree is what I wanted to do. And so that's what I started with the curriculum. And they said, well you have two years of a foreign language because it's liberal arts and science, right?
And then I said, well, I don't want to do that because I really struggled with foreign languages. So then I ended up looking at the engineering curriculum. And that was a lot of the same math courses. And back then, the attitude of Illinois was a little bit different than it is now, in that they tended to take a lot of freshmen in. And then the first year was called the flunk-out curriculum. And they would try and flunk you out.
And I remember the first year, my first semester, my first year. I had four hours of calculus, four hours of physics, and four hours of chemistry, an hour of rhetoric and English, and an hour of PE. And it was like just pile it on and see who survives. And now they tend to prequalify people more. And once they get you in, they do everything they can to keep you in.
Well, back then it was a little bit different. So I survived that first year. And then sports got a hold of me. And my GPA was the highest my freshman year. It kept creeping down as I kept finding other things to do with my life. [LAUGHS]
MATT BUCHI: And that, too, about being involved in sports, for being somebody that had not been interacting or participating in adaptive sports, not seeing anything into it, what gave you the initiative to jump in and go headfirst into it, knowing that you were in a university that had a really hard curriculum, and you were basically feeling like they were testing you to see if you were going to survive your first year? And then you jumped into sports. What drove you to do that?
KIM POLLOCK: All my life I had been the kid with the disability. And now I was going to be judged on my abilities and not my disability. So people were going to look at me and say, OK, now I'm competing against my peer group. And that sense of competitiveness, it just ignited. I didn't realize I had that fierce competition.
And it was a lot of hard work and late nights. And I remember sitting in my dorm room with a basketball for hours on end just throwing the ball and catching it, just to get comfortable with catching it. And then there was a fellow by the name of Jack Whitman. And I don't know if that name or not. But he was a phenomenal archer, a quadriplegic. And he competed against able-bodied people in archery and won tournaments. He was just incredible. But anyway, he kind of took me under his wing with football.
And we would go out, and he would just throw the football to me all the time till you just develop that touch. And it's having a mentor like that and having people that take you under their wing that sometimes makes a big difference. But I think I took me two practices to get a basket when I first started playing.
[LAUGHS] It was maybe not that long. But it was so foreign to be sitting in a chair and shooting up at a basket like that. And your muscle memory isn't there at all. And you have to develop that. So I think that [INAUDIBLE], the ability to compete and the ability to play against my peer group was really what-- and to win, to compete and win against the peer group, so.
MATT BUCHI: And so then 1966, '67 is your first season with the team. And it's not like a general kind of jumping a recreational team. This is a pretty legitimately good basketball team. The players around are really good. And you start off in your regional games 12 and 0. How is it just jumping in with the Gizz Kids, traveling to games and participating in that way when you'd never experienced anything like that?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah, so being part of a team where you're not just ancillary, you're one of the core members, was very important. I didn't start many games that first year. Towards the end of the season I earned a starting spot. But you well know, as a college team, every four years your roster is completely replenished, right?
And we had kind of a tsunami of talent that came in when I was there. And it was just luck. I'll probably talk about Tom Brown and Ed Owen. And they were just outstanding athletes, and they'd been recruited in Illinois by Stan [INAUDIBLE] and Tim Nugent to come play there.
And so when I joined, I wouldn't even call it a diamond in the rough. I was just the rough. But just having them around me and having that kind of talent and to be able to teach and see the right way to do it-- and Illinois at that time had a very disciplined offense. So unlike a lot of the other teams in the NWBA, we had set plays that we ran, and we practiced and rehearsed those.
And [INAUDIBLE] a young team, I think that was important because you weren't relying on people to ad hoc and have their experience build on. You had to rely on the practice and practice of the set plays. And Ed and Tom, their personalities melded with mine. And we had Jim Taylor and Joe [INAUDIBLE]. There were just five of us that we played almost all four years together that same [INAUDIBLE]. And it really let us get to know each other and develop our skills. It was the right group of people at the right time.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah, I'd love to talk about Ed Owen. The legend of Ed Owen carries on with his name for many of us in the wheelchair basketball world. And I was very fortunate as a young student athlete to meet Ed when I was attendee of a camp here in Illinois. And he was just kind of helping out being involved. That was later on in his life.
But that year, that '66, '67 at nationals, though your team finished fifth place, he personally shot 61.5% shooting. And he also broke records Illini records outside of those. He had 35 field goals in the 3 games he played at nationals. He scored 83 points and was 27.7 points per game, all three Illinois records. What was it like playing with 6' 10" Ed Owen?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah. He was a good friend, and he was so dedicated to the sport. He studied it. And he knew-- he was approaching it from a scientific standpoint. And he knew how to set a pick. He was able to teach you what it meant to set a pick and how to position your chair and shooting techniques.
He just was-- he lived and breathed wheelchair basketball. And 6'10", 6'11", in wheelchair basketball it's a huge advantage. But beyond that, there's been a lot of tall players that I've played against, but none that could move the chair the way that Ed moved it. And I don't if you to know this. But he grew up in Kokomo, Indiana and swam on this high school-- and Indiana is a big sports state.
Well, he swam on his swim team in the breaststroke and competed and set a state record in the breaststroke, even though he is swimming against able-bodied people. He was a polio. He had a limp in his right leg. He didn't use any brace or anything but still without being able to do the kick and everything. But the body length is an advantage in swimming. And he set a state record in the breaststroke in Indiana. And I don't know how long it lasted. But then he came to Illinois. And he was just-- he was a great teacher.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah, and the wingspan on Ed was amazing. And I remember him shaking my hand and his hand just engulfing mine. Just the wingspan was just incredible.
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah. He was-- I'm fortunate I have long arms as well. But they don't compare to Ed's. Ed was special. But with the two of us down there, there weren't many teams that would out rebound us at the time. One point I want to talk about-- the chairs we had back then, because that was a big deal and the equipment that we-- you didn't know any better, right? When you come there, this is the world you're introduced to.
And our chairs that first year were 70-pound E&J folding chairs. They were just incredibly heavy. They're steel, and they were chrome plated and had folding foot platforms. Many of them didn't even have removable arms. The ones that did have removable arms, there was a little post there that you would catch your thumb on whenever you're pushing hard. And you'd rip a fingernail off or something.
And the brakes [INAUDIBLE] levers [INAUDIBLE]. And you'd hit those with your fingers as well. They were monster chairs. And then the second and third year we had a donation of five chairs from [INAUDIBLE]. And they were about 35 pounds-- 30, 35 pounds. And so that was a huge improvement over the E&J.
But they all had the small five-inch casters. But they tended to wobble. And you'd get going up to speed, and they'd start wobbling. And of course, your fast break was done. And the other thing I remember is that probably every three to four games I would break an axle in the middle of the game. And that was just the axle design was just such that you were making turn, and it would snap the wheel. The wheel would fall off. And so having a tool kit with spare axles was a necessity.
And the other thing was the tires. The tires we had would mark up the floors. And there were a lot of gyms that did not want us to play in there because we were marking up the floors and leaving black marks. We had red tires for a while. And they would leave marks as well. And so we were restricted.
And the other thing I remember was the foot platforms. If you didn't put a guard on them, it would tip forward and gouge and leave a big gouge on the wooden floor. And of course, they, for some reason, didn't like that either. But we did not have a practice facility at Illinois. The only place we could practice for the whole four years I was there was Champaign High School.
And we would bus over there in the evenings and have a two- to three-hour practice three days a week. And the only other gym on campus that was an intramural gym was Huff Gym. And that had like eight steps to get up to it. There were no ramps to it.
And there were five or six of us that would go on Friday and Saturday night, and we'd scrimmage for a couple hours almost every Friday and Saturday night. But in order to get them up, Tom Brown would scoot up. He was a double amp, and he would scoot up. And there were a couple others would work their way up. But between Ed and I, we would sit on the stairs and pull the chairs up for the other guys with them in there one step at a time, and scoot up a step, and pull them up to get up into the gym.
And then we'd scrimmage. And then when we're done, we'd lower them down the stairs too. But that was our only way of having a gym that we could use and practice. But I remember those practices on Friday and Saturday nights were just a big part of the experience there and what we had to go through to get in there.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. So you said that you had to bus to Champaign High School during the week for regular practices. And then you, on your own, did scrimmages, intramural scrimmages, on Fridays and Saturdays?
KIM POLLOCK: Right.
MATT BUCHI: And that was a Huff.
KIM POLLOCK: That was at Huff, men's old gym, Huff Gym, yeah.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. And that was one of the other things that we were talking about too is in reference to a lot of the Sigma Signs in the recordings that they had mentioned Huff Hall being the old men's gym, because knowing that Huff Hall was where the men used to play. And then they moved to Assembly Hall, which is now State Farm Center, correct?
KIM POLLOCK: Right. And actually before I got there, the gym floor used to be a swimming pool. And then they filled it all in and turned it into a gym floor. And then another fun story is we had the national finals there one year. I'm not remembering what year, '68 or '69 or '70. I don't remember. And when we had the men's, we had the top eight teams in the country, the NWBA, the top eight teams coming there. And here's this inaccessible gym. So Tim Nugent went to the Faculty Advisory Committee and had to plead his case and finally was able to get permission to build a wooden ramp up to the men's old gym so these eight teams could get in and compete.
And the stipulation was that right after the tournament was over, we had to tear that ramp down because they were afraid that the able-bodied people would trip and fall on the ramp and hurt themselves. And so here we built this ramp up to the gym, and it was a switchback ramp and with handrails and everything. It was a nicely done ramp. And they play the tournament. And then a week later they had gotten in and tore the whole thing down. It was incredible.
MATT BUCHI: How did you get to be able to play on that court with the fear of tire marks and gouges of the chairs, yet they had an issue with a ramp?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah, I know. I know. Well, but by that time, I think we had figured out the tires. And they weren't leaving the marks then. That was pretty much an issue the first year, first two years. And then the tire technology caught up with us, I guess.
And the gougers, we were pretty anal about making sure that every chair from every team had protection under there. So some people put carpet under there. Some people would do different thing.s There's all kinds of different strategies. But we didn't-- tip bars were not allowed.
You couldn't have it where the chair's got a fifth wheel back there. And they were not allowed to have that. And so we had a lot of people fall over backwards during the game and so on. But, yeah, it evolved. I built a wheelchair when I was there. I put my little engineering talent, meager as it was, to work. And I built a fixed-frame chair. And at that time, there were hardly any fixed-frame chairs out there. And I took it to a local welder and had it welded up. And it was so much better than the folding chairs that tend to collapse as you pivot.
But it was ruled ineligible. And I couldn't compete in it. So I could practice with it and everything. But I couldn't use it to play the games with because it was ruled ineligible. So go figure.
MATT BUCHI: Well, also, what equipment did you guys use when you were playing wheelchair football? Because I know that that was a big thing, and it's continued to be a big thing here in Illinois. But I think in your generation and generation just after you, the three teams of the blue, white, and gold, it's like rivalry until till today. People are committed to their colors. Tell me a little bit more about wheelchair football.
KIM POLLOCK: So that was my first experience with adaptive sports. And that first year we went, and they had a new player draft. And the teams would go through the draft process based on how they finished the year before. And here I was this gangly freshmen that couldn't even hold the football, much less catch it. The golds, I don't remember what position I was drafted. I don't remember. But they picked me. And Tom Brown was in that class.
And Ed Owen, I think-- I don't remember [INAUDIBLE] being picked that year or not. But anyway, there were about eight of us-- there were maybe eight or nine that were drafted. And then we started having practice. And the chairs were the heavy E&J chairs. And that's what we ended up using the whole time we were there. And they put a steel welded bar in front to keep the chair from spudding. And that was like a bumper, a steel bumper.
And so a lot of the plays of wheelchair football, it's a lot of contact with the chairs and blocking and everything in it. And if there were two or three people on the tartan surface after the play, each play, then something was wrong because you learned how to hit them right in the wheel and cause them to dump out. And it was a lot of contact.
But the chairs were the heavy ones. And the lighter chairs would be faster but a lot less stable. You'd get hit or something, you go flying every time. So it was a trade off. But I ended up being a wide receiver. And George [INAUDIBLE], who'd graduated already by then, but he was the quarterback and played on my team.
And we had a really solid team. And he was a good quarterback, and he had some-- I still remember the plays that we would form and play. So I had [INAUDIBLE]. That was-- I think in terms of pure enjoyment, those Saturday mornings going out and playing a game of football [INAUDIBLE] always been in my mind.
MATT BUCHI: That's awesome. And where did you guys play at? Where did you usually have your games?
KIM POLLOCK: At the Armory. It was indoors in the armory, yeah. And they had the-- it was a 60-yard field instead of 100 yard. It was a tartan surface. And we would go in on Saturday mornings and have two games with the three teams. And one team would play two games. And it just depended on how it rotated through.
And we had a lot of students would stop and watch us for a while, didn't have a big following. But we had a lot of fun. And then afterwards it was typically a fall a morning. You'd go out and watch the band warm up and go watch the Fighting Illini play football and get stomped by Ohio State. And those were good memories-- good memories.
MATT BUCHI: So you had basketball. And you had football. And you're doing that through the school year when you're also taking classes and things. But then there is a section in there where you guys did what they would call basketball tours, where you toured on it. Can you tell me a little bit about your first experience of the tour? And I have down that your first tour that you had you guys traveled over 4,000 miles, going from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, all the way to Washington, DC.
KIM POLLOCK: The basketball program back then was not part of the university. The wheelchair sports program had to be funded separately from the university. And so Tim Nugent was a big force behind that-- and Sam. And so during the semester break, between semesters, we would go on tour. And he would prearrange it. He'd have set up exhibition games, usually in the afternoon and the evening at all these little Midwestern towns.
And we would go in, and we would play the high school team or a junior college team, or we'd do a scrimmage, or we'd play the local basketball team or something. And the people there would sell tickets ahead of time. And so we'd usually have a pretty good crowd of people attending. And then we would put on a little halftime show of some exhibitions. And Rich Feltus and I would do the chair-- we had a routine, kind of a comedy routine that we did on jumping curbs and going up ramps and spinning on two wheels and stuff like that. And we had our lines down pretty good.
But so part of the whole experience with the getting involved in Illinois and the adaptive sports program was giving me personally the opportunity to get a lot of self-confidence, get comfortable speaking in front of people in front of a crowd, speaking with a microphone in my hand, and experiences that I might not have had it I chose a different school or a different path. So all these things, the memories still stick with me and I think helped me through my careers too. But we'd stay in these little motels. And it was a lot of fun.
I can remember a couple of incidents. One time we were on tour up in Michigan. And it was snow. It was the middle of the winter. And the local people took us out on snowmobiles, right, snow machines.
So we were in these trailers behind the snow machine. Or I was holding on to the guy-- driver. And my roommate at the time-- his name was John Barnes-- was in a trailer behind us on the snow machine. And we went out on a golf course at night, right? So we're sitting around the course.
And we get back home, and the trailer had come disconnected. And my roommate was not there anymore. And so it's like, where is he? [LAUGHS] And so of course, he couldn't mobile out. He wasn't mobile at all. So we had to go back out, and here he is on like the 13th green sitting there with this-- all huddled in a trailer, waiting for us to come back and get him. [LAUGHS]
But we did things like that. And we just had a lot of laughs. It was a lot of fun and gave me something to really look forward to. So the primary purpose was fundraising and getting money for the programs to fund the-- and Tim had developed these buses with the ramps on them, the only ones in the country at that time.
And so we would get on-- they were essentially reconditioned school buses. And then we ended up getting more of a Greyhound-type bus later on. But it was a lot of card games. We played cards in the back of the bus the whole time and just going from a little town to a little town all across the Midwest.
And then one year we went to Hawaii for the end of tour. And that was a big deal. And we played about five exhibition games over in Hawaii. And so it was a team bonding type of thing. It was a lot of fun. When on tour, we always played some exhibition basketball games. And there were times when we would go to tour and we would play a regular team as a warm up for the national tournament. So it was definitely during the season that we were on tour.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. So you came back that next year. Nationals that first year was in Chicago, again, that next year, '67, '68 was in Chicago as well. And you guys finished second place. So you got really close into there in that one. And third team All-American-- you were awarded third team All-American in that one. And the team was an incredible shooting team. With three games that you guys played, you shot 61%. So that was incredible to see those stats there.
But obviously MVP that we had talked about before, Tom Brown-- Tom had an incredible tournaments in those games and scored 39 points in one game and averaged 32 points in every game that he was playing in that tournament. Tell me a little bit about Tom's ability to put the ball in the basket.
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah. And this was pre-three point. There was no three-point lane there. So he was scoring that without its three point. And he was also-- there was no shot clock. So a lot of teams took the strategy of trying to slow the game down. And they would try and hold the ball against us because we did like to do a lot of fast breaks. So it was hard to run up a score in that kind of an environment.
But Tom was born without any legs. And he was abandoned and adopted by a family in Colorado. And ended up he was a music major. He played a terrific flute. You don't picture Tom Brown as playing flute. But he was a terrific flute player. And his major was music.
But he had a touch, underhand, over hand from five 5 out or 30 feet out. He was really skilled. I remember in one practice I rebounded for him while he was shooting free throws. And he put a 92 out of 100 free throws. And that's hard to do. I could never even do probably 50 or 60 out of 100.
But he did a lot of really nice shots. And it was hard to guard him because [INAUDIBLE] land you fast in the chair and able to turn on a dime. And he used that to his advantage. And he had a good attitude. He and Ed were-- the three of us were kind of really good friends. And it just really gelled. And none of us were selfish. None of us tried to hog the ball. We didn't showboat. And it just was a good complementary team.
So I just sent Tom an email a couple of days ago. And he's down in Texas. And I wanted to know how he was doing with all the freezing going on, the weather down there and everything. And still stay in touch with Tom. Ed's passed away. Ed died about 10 years ago. But Tom's still around, so.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. Well, now that you did all that travel by bus. You were talking about the tours that you guys were doing. But the '67, '68 season was one where you took two pretty large flight trips, one being that the Gizz Kids went to Hawaii that year. That was the one you were mentioning before and got to meet with some of the dignitaries there. And come to find out the governor's wife had a physical disability that kind of connected you guys that way and kind of opened the door for that travel. And she became an honorary DSL member because of your guys' trip. Can you tell me a little bit about going from the Central Illinois to Hawaii?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah, that was a big deal. And we had to stop at Disneyland on the way out, which was really hard to do, but. [LAUGHS] Growing up in Southern California, I'd been there a number of times. But most of the kids, most of my teammates had never been to Disneyland before. So the times I've been before, though, I was walking. But this time I remember Richard and I took off in our chairs.
And we must hit every single ride there. And we would zoom between rides and get up to the front line, go do the ride, and then go on to the next one. So that was a fun time. And then in Hawaii, it was more relaxing than work. They had a bunch of things planned for us that were tours and that kind of stuff. And we played one major exhibition game, and then we had a couple days where we went to a couple of rehab centers and gave little talks or exhibitions.
But Tim and his wife to be at the time, Jeanette, Jeanette grew up in Hawaii. And so she had that whole connection there. And they had arranged all kinds of programs for us. And it was just a Midwestern kid growing up in the corn belt, this was a big deal to go to Hawaii like that.
MATT BUCHI: And now we flashback a little bit because now you're into your second year. We're getting into 1968. And it's been two years, or close to two years, of you playing adaptive sports, before that have no experience. And now it's 1968, and you're attending the Paralympics in Israel.
KIM POLLOCK: That was amazing.
MATT BUCHI: Two years in adaptive sports, and you finish with two silvers and a bronze. What is that like?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah. So that was pretty amazing I left that summer. And, to be honest with you, I didn't really think much about the Paralympics at all. We had competed in-- every year they had what they called the [INAUDIBLE] Games in New York. And that was a track and field. And we had competed there, and I was getting some basketball credentials at that time.
And back at the '68 Paralympics, they were held in Tel Aviv, Israel. The normal Olympics were held in Mexico City that year, in '68. But Mexico did not want to sponsor the Paralympics. They didn't feel that they could afford to do it, and they didn't have the facilities.
So then they scrounged around. And it happened to be the 20th anniversary of Israel as a country, from '48 to '68. So we were there as part of that year-long celebration from Israel of 20 years of independence. And so they rolled out the red carpet for us. And so we ended up at the Paralympics in Israel.
But I got a summer job with one of my teammates. He lived in New York City, in Brooklyn. And so I was living with him in his apartment with his family. And we were lifeguards down at the pool of this huge, huge complex, which meant our primary job was arbitrating the chase lounge battles between the old ladies that said, this is mine. No, you left it dirty. It's mine. So it was nothing about saving lives.
But he is in a wheelchair, and I was more able-bodied. And I got a phone call or a letter saying that I'd been selected for the Paralympics. And I thought, holy smokes. It wasn't even on my radar screen. And so then I immediately quit and came back home and started the process of getting set up to go over there. And it was an incredible experience.
I wish I could go back and relive it and have my head more into the moment than being kind of a job, going over there and being kind of-- and appreciate it for what the experience really was. But it was amazing. And the people from all these other countries-- there were, like, 35 countries competing that year and athletes from all over the world. And at that time, there was not a separate qualification for basketball. You had to qualify in track and field.
And then the basketball team was picked from the people that had qualified in track and field. And the other restriction they had, because it was based on the [INAUDIBLE] Games, they call them, which was a spinal cord injury, you had to have a spinal cord injury of some kind to qualify. And so Tom Brown could not qualify for the Paralympics because he was not considered disabled as an amputee.
So it was some weird dynamics going on there. But when you got over there and you're living in the village, and some Illinois people, but there are also some other people that I'm competing against normally during the season, and here they are my teammates now. And we ended up playing Israel in the finals for the basketball. And we had what I thought was an outstanding team, with some people like [INAUDIBLE] and Denver Branum and Gary [INAUDIBLE] and some other well-known names.
But Israel, their team was made up a lot of these army guys that had been injured in the battle for independence for Israel. And so they were all buff. And they took that basketball. Oh, man, they were-- and they were a cut above where we were. And yet we held our own. But they ended up taking it.
And I'll never forget. The game was played in an outdoor court, the final game. And there must have been 25,000 people there. And they were on rooftops a block away watching. And at that time, the minister of defense for Israel was a guy by the name of Moshe Dayan. He was a general that been injured in the war. He had a patch over his eye, and he was there in person.
And so we're playing this game. And I didn't start, but I got in. And I was fouled. And here I am on the foul line, and I've got 30,000 people yelling at me. And I shot two free throws, didn't come close. I missed everything-- everything. So embarrassed.
And ever since then, I can't get over the professionals that had that happen. And they just nailed the free throws, and they've got the people waving in the background. And I just didn't have that level of concentration.
MATT BUCHI: But you went from being a lifeguard in New York to being in Tel Aviv, Israel for the Paralympics and then finish with a silver in the 50-yard freestyle swimming.
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah.
MATT BUCHI: And so swimming has always been something that's really followed you along with basketball. What got you into swimming? And what kind of training did you continue to do with swimming?
KIM POLLOCK: Oh, so swimming was always important because I grew up in Southern California. And we would go to the beach a lot. And so when you're in the water, the disability is not nearly as pronounced, right? You'd get a lot more freedom. And I remember swimming out on the waves and going out way past where the surf starts and [INAUDIBLE] riding the waves in. And it was, for me, freedom. And you're in a medium that you're more comfortable in.
But I never competed until I got to Illinois. And then when we got to Illinois, we started some pretty rigorous programs of early morning swims and distance swimming. And during my freshman year, you were required to take one hour of physical PE. And most of the people had to take it at what we called the Rehab Center and go through the program there.
Well, I was able to-- because I could take the swimming program, I took the one-hour swimming class at the university. And we ended swimming a mile. And later in the season we would do a mile every swim. And so that was my PE class that I ended up getting an A in. I don't know if I deserved it or not, but I got my A in my PE for that freshman year. And that was to fill that requirement. So swimming just always-- I've always felt comfortable in water and enjoyed doing it.
MATT BUCHI: Then let's move into '68, '69 because this is a big season. You're co-captain. You take second team All-American from nationals. But nationals is it at Assembly Hall? Are you on campus for that nationals?
KIM POLLOCK: Well, Illinois hosted at two years in a row. And I thought the first year was men's old gym and the second year was Assembly Hall. But maybe I'd have to go back and check my records.
MATT BUCHI: Honestly, I believe it's the opposite. I think that '60, '69 might have been at Assembly Hall, and then '69, '70 was at old men's gym, or Huff Hall. But it was a back to back on campus on there. But I know that there are photos that are these dramatic angles from the bottom of the court facing up. And you can see the black and white scoreboard hanging up above. It looks like you guys are at Assembly Hall, with all the things on there. What was it like playing in that kind of stadium at that time?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah, that was amazing because you never think you're going to get on a floor like that, and much less to compete and play basketball. So I don't know how they arranged it. But we had a rivalry with Detroit, the Detroit team. And the year before when we came in second, Detroit came in first.
And after we had our run, then they won that year after. So they kind of bracketed us. And we were in between. And there was a real rivalry. And they had some outstanding players.
And during one of our tours, we went up and played them in the middle of the season. That was a five-overtime game. It was just absolutely-- it just-- you look back on it. You say, how did we play five overtimes? And we ended up winning it. So that was just-- but then we get into the finals, and they jumped out to a pretty substantial lead.
And then we started chipping away, chipping away, chipping away and ended up winning it the first year. And then we ended up winning it again the second year. And they were more like the NBA, and we're like NCAA, right? And so they were so confident that they were going to show us how to play basketball. And here we go in and beat them two years in a row. It just really got to them.
And then the third year when we lost, Ed Owen had graduated. And so it was Tom Brown and I. And we had some other people. And then I left. I had graduated in January. So I left school and then came back to play in the tournament from work, where I was working. And so that was to finish up the year there. But some great memories-- some great memories.
MATT BUCHI: So in that first championship, like we talk about with Detroit, Detroit is the big rival's program for you guys. And I think with every college program there are some teams that no matter what level you're at, what position you are, what rank you are, when that team plays against each other, it's a big game. And obviously listening in on stories and conversations with you guys when we were at nationals in 2019, Detroit was that team. And you talked about their equipment they were able to use and modify things because they had access to stuff like that in Detroit.
But I have a quote here that I thought was really cool, too, that they in the Sigma Signs, they were talking about your first championship and the celebration afterwards and how it was such a close game all the way to the end. And you guys ended up beating Detroit 48 to 44. And Maureen Clark is quoted by saying, "I remember struggling to get up the ramp onto the basketball court, hugging everyone in sight and seeing Kim Pollack dumped over in his chair in excitement." So can you reflect back on that first championship, with the crew that you had and what it was like to finally beat that Detroit team?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah. I have a photo still of me on the floor after the win. It was just-- man, I said it before. I wish I could go back and relive those moments because they are so fleeting. I don't think you fully appreciate how important they're going to be for your life when they happen. It's like the older I get, the faster I was, right?
MATT BUCHI: Yeah, right. [LAUGHS]
KIM POLLOCK: So I wish I could go back and relive some of those. I wish they had videos back then. I would love to see some videos of the game and see some of the films and relive some of those moments. And now every minute of every game is filmed and video taped, and people have that forever. And we don't have any of that.
I have some still photos. And that's pretty much it but just capture the excitement and capture the moment, the experience. But what sticks in my mind is the celebration afterwards and how excited-- there were five of us. And we'd started most of the games. And we played-- as long as it was close, we didn't substitute unless one of us got in foul trouble. It wasn't like today, where you're moving people in and out all the time.
We had a bench. But it wasn't what I would consider a strong bench. But what really sticks with me is how excited the bench was for us. They were part of the team as well. And even though they were not out there during the game, after we won, they were every bit as excited about the win as we were. And so that, to me, was very, very important and very-- the photos that I have, they're laughing and cheering every bit as much as we are. So that's great.
MATT BUCHI: That's awesome. And after that championship, or in that same season, you participated in the 13th National Wheelchair Games in New York, as well as the Stoke Mandeville Games. And we had talked about all of those different groups. And I'd love to hear your perspective on in this day and age, student athletes are stuck into one sport. That's where their focus is. And so all their training is in basketball or in track or in swimming, something like that.
And for you, you had a wide variety of sports that you participated in. And even in that wheelchair games, you took first place in the 240-yard relay, second in archery, and third in breaststroke and the one-mile competition, fourth in the 60-yard dash, and fifth in freestyle. So you're doing track. You're doing swimming, archery. What got you involved in doing so much like that?
KIM POLLOCK: So I often wonder if I were coming up today as a student, you would specialize a lot more and where I would specialize. Back then, I don't know what the difference was, but there probably weren't as many athletes. There weren't as many opportunities. There weren't developed programs like we have today.
And so you ended up-- we would go from football season to basketball season, baseball season to track season. And in track, you just-- [INAUDIBLE] basketball, you tended to be [INAUDIBLE] go fast in the chair, so you were good on the track field. And then swimming was always part of my DNA.
The other things, I never-- I don't consider myself an archer. I did it, and I tried it. And with the class system and everything, I was competing against other people in my own class. But it was-- so I don't know. It was fun to do, and I enjoyed doing it, and it kept me off the streets at night. But I think that if I had to go back and look, basketball and football were the two things that I really enjoyed the most.
The basketball I was most successful at. Football was more just Illinois. But they were team sports not individual sports. And they were the ones that I really gravitated towards.
MATT BUCHI: Well, the fun one is the idea of the 240-yard relay because obviously you upset the team below the local team, who was supposed to be the team to win that. And it was kind of one of those things where the kids were just coming in and just like, hey, we're going to do this relay. And you guys end up beating somebody that had been training hard to try to win that. What kind of competition was that like? Because I believe it-- was Tom one of the ones that was with you in that relay?
KIM POLLOCK: Tom would have been there in the Bulova Games, yes. And what happened was back then you had different class-- your relay team was made up of different classes. I assume it's still that today.
MATT BUCHI: Sure.
KIM POLLOCK: And so the team from Bulova, he had a class one that was very fast. And the class system, it's kind of arbitrary in some ways. But they had some of those class [INAUDIBLE] a class one that was not that disabled and in a chair. And so that's why they were the favorites there because typically your class one is your weak spot on your relay team, and just because they're more disabled.
And so Bulova had a-- but we were able to get a big enough lead and hold off for the class one to come in and finish first. But that was an upset victory. But on the radar, that was kind of a one off. And it wasn't the same as beating Detroit or beating Chicago in the NWBA. It was fun. And a lot of the competition was done on an asphalt parking lot out in the-- I don't know. Bulova makes watches. I don't know if they're still in business or not.
But they had a program for the physically disabled, where they would turn them into watchmakers. And so they had all these people in wheelchairs that would sit at the desk all day long, putting gears in watches. And so that was kind of an outgrowth of the program they had, where they would sponsored the wheelchair competition there. And then from that, we would select the USA team to go compete in Stoke Mandeville or in the Paralympics, depending how well you did in the Bulova Games.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. With the research that I've been doing, I was really interested in why one of the teams was called The Watchmakers. It just didn't seem like a team name that would really fit in. And yeah, after doing some research I kind of found out of the same type of deal. And they actually offered free tuition for injured military to participate in that school to be able to learn how to make those watches. I thought that was amazing, a really cool experience.
KIM POLLOCK: Well, good for good for Bulova. There weren't many programs that the disabled kids could call their own and get into. But for them sitting at a desk doing the fine-- some of the watchers, that was a career choice for a lot of people.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. And to end that and kind of go into the '70s is that you won the 1969 Harold Scharper Service Award. And in the same time, you were also one of the top 100 seniors for Illinois and being in there. What do you feel about that award? And what kind of experience do you have knowing that there was a lot of other big names had won that award in the past?
KIM POLLOCK: You're dusting away a lot of my cobwebs here, man. [LAUGHS]
MATT BUCHI: [LAUGHS]
KIM POLLOCK: So those are both very big honors. And again, it goes back to being recognized for my abilities and not because I'm [INAUDIBLE] for one of my disabilities. So both of those, the top winner of seniors that had nothing to do with my disability. That was my accomplishments in engineering. And it was not an academic thing, or I never would have won it. But it was a combination of academic and your extracurricular and your other activities.
And I don't even know who nominated me for that or how I was selected. But that was a real shock because that was the people all across all curriculum at Illinois and to be nominated for that and win that honor. And then the Herald Scharper was one put out by Delta Sigma [INAUDIBLE]. And that was a nice recognition as well. And then later on, I was able to get the Achievement Award from that too. So that was-- again, anytime you're getting recognized like that it's not at all what I expected when I made that decision to come to Illinois.
You thought you'd be one of the numbers and come out as one of the numbers go on and live your mundane-- I don't want to be negative. But it just you just don't go in expecting-- at least I didn't go in expecting to have all kinds of honors coming out of there.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. Well, then moving into the '69, '70 season, which just seems like your team just dominated. With inclusion of the exhibition games, you went 36 and 0, winning another championship. And like we talked about, that was at Huff Hall, which in that time period was men's old gym. And you also participated in the Bulova games again. That was a fourth consecutive win for the Gizz Kids, just going in year and year after that. But then, yeah, if you could tell us a little bit about that second championship. And was that the year that you mentioned that was Ed's last year playing?
KIM POLLOCK: Yes, it was Ed's last year. He graduated. And it was just an incredible run. We just had-- I said before, we were just fortunate. We had all these people come in at the same time. And they were together the four years. And we were able to get to know each other. And our expectation was that we would win games. And you just go in a little cocky.
And the other teams had been around for a lot longer, had more seasoned players. A lot of the teams had Illinois graduates on them from previous years, especially the Chicago team and St. Louis team. And so they were out to prove that they could beat their old alma mater, right? They had it in for us. And there were some close battles along the way. But I think Detroit is the one that really is memorable to me.
MATT BUCHI: So you're back-to-back national champions. On the Illinois campus, what is the interaction with the student body? Did they know about your guys' performance? Did they attend games how was it to have nationals two times on campus and interact with them?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah. Interesting question. We had articles about us in the Daily Illini, the newspaper. And they covered us pretty well. A lot of times, they're just short little blurbs about some of our games. But on the national championships we got a little bit bigger spread.
But day-to-day campus life, I don't think, changed that much. I think it would have been different if it were a regular Illinois baseball player. You're going to class. But when I would go into my classes, I didn't get any recognition. And I wasn't expecting it, and I didn't get it.
So there were some times people would stop. And it was interesting. I think most of the comments were around the football. People would stop in and watch football and enjoyed seeing that more than they did the-- more memorable than the basketball.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah, I think that's really similar to this kind of era when we interact with people that may not have seen a lot of adaptive sports. They may see wheelchair basketball or a basketball chair and then think, oh, do you play quad rugby? Or do you play murderball? Because the impact of, one, the movie Murderball but, two, also the physical contact is something that blows a lot of people's minds that that's something that's in there. They just kind of relate that, oh, you must all be playing in that sport.
KIM POLLOCK: Right. Exactly. It's the same kind of thing.
MATT BUCHI: And then that last national tournament that you participated in, team finished third with a win over Philadelphia. But in the conference, you guys took second because you got to play against Ed playing for the Black Knights that were here in Champaign. Many that may not follow the history of Illinois wheelchair basketball know that we had a club program here in Champaign that was the Black Knights. And it was fueled a lot of times by athletes who had graduated from our Gizz Kids program and continued to play. What's the rivalry like playing against your old teammate?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah, and that was pretty intense. And again, the restriction in Illinois was you had to be an undergraduate, right? Because we were a college team. And so when Ed graduated, he was in grad school, but he did not qualify for the team. And so they played on the Black Knights. And most of the people there had graduated from Illinois. And so there was an intense rivalry. And we-- especially since we beat them so handily for the three years prior to that.
MATT BUCHI: Well, I think we kind of shared that I, with the information that I found here through the Sigma Signs is shaking away a little bit of cobwebs from your memory and brought up some new stories and things that you had mentioned. But a lot of this is just the stats. It's the scores. It's the records. It's the things. I'd love to know, now that we've talked about this and kind of reminisced, what are some of the fondest memories that you have that are not in the books, things that you had experienced as an athlete or just as a student at U of I?
KIM POLLOCK: You ask some very good questions, man. Again, dusting off those cobwebs. I think my fondest memory of my time at Illinois was the friendships that I've made and I still enjoy. I still keep in touch with probably seven of my teammates and some of them every week or a couple of weeks. And I visit with them and go see them and talk to them on the phone.
And that shared experience you have, that's what forms a bond with people is when you can have some shared experiences. And you each go your own different ways after that. But you've got that common period of time when you went through the same issues and successes and challenges as your teammates. And so I think of all the things I've enjoyed about my time at Illinois, that was one.
And the other part of my time at Illinois that I really enjoyed is the self-confidence that it gave me as an individual, where I went in as kind of a reticent-- I won't call myself a nerd, but just I wasn't outstanding in any way at all. And I was able to develop and grow and in my own little niche make a difference. And I didn't expect that.
And I look back. I've talked to people. And they, say, star to pity you or say, poor you, and, well, I'm sorry that happened. And if I had to go back and change things, I wouldn't change a thing. I'd even go out and get that polio bug right away and live my life the way I lived it. I think it's opened a lot of doors, a lot more doors [INAUDIBLE] than closed. So I wouldn't change a thing. But Illinois was certainly a huge part of my development and will always be in my heart.
MATT BUCHI: I think you said from the very beginning that swimming ended up giving you freedom and the ability to push past your disability. And then you took swimming as something that you participated in and competed in. You even worked for it over the summer in New York. And then swimming comes full circle as in last year, an article because there's this 70-something-year-old man on crutches that sees some kids struggling in a river. You jump in and save these kids with your swimming ability. What happened?
KIM POLLOCK: Yeah, that was pretty-- right place at the wrong time or something like that. But I have a hand cycle. And I was out on my hand cycle ride. And this was during the springtime. And there was a spring runoff from the mountains, and the water was flowing at probably four or five times the rate that it normally does, the Virgin River coming through St. George, where I live now. And they have what's called a low-head dam. And the water comes over it, and it goes down and drops down about two to three feet and just kind of churns. And I saw these kids on these Walmart inner tubes coming down the river. And they were headed towards that dam. They were teenagers. There were four of them.
And I knew that they probably didn't know that dam was there. And so I pedaled forward to the dam, and I stopped. And I waited for them. And they were like lemmings going off the cliff, right? And the first one came off and started screaming. The next one came off. And the fourth one was more in the middle of the river.
And they were able to get into the beat of the current. And so they floated on through. But the three of them were just churning. And they lost their grip on their inner tubes. But the inner tubes were just staying right there because of the way the water's just cycling.
And they're going under. They're coming back up. And I knew they were in trouble. And there was no one else around. So I got my crutches. My thinking was, I'll wade in the water and stick my crutch out and have them grab the crutch and pull them in.
Well, that thought lasted about 16 seconds because I went out there and immediately the ground grabbed dropped off. It was well over my head. It went straight down. And now I'm in a washing machine churning around my crutches. And my hearing aids, they flew off. My glasses flew off.
And I was able to grab my crutches to keep them and grab my glasses. But I got back to shore, gave my glasses and my one crutch to my wife. And I went back out, and I probably went under maybe five or six times trying to get out there and finally was able to get one of the kids in.
I had to grab them on my crutch. I found a root that I could hold onto and get out far enough where he could grab on to my crutch. And at that point, another bicycle came by, and he went in, and he did a couple of down and unders as well before he was able to get the two of them over.
I'm under the water thinking, is this how it's going to end? And I though, no, it's not going to end this way. But I probably saw three or four of my lives go past me. But it was something you just follow your instinct. And I wasn't scared, but I just thought, am I really doing? Is this really-- because it was like a giant washing machine. You're just tumbling around in circles like that and no control over, no ability to do anything. So it was pretty amazing.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah, and I know when the article came out and sharing it with some of the alumni, I know that personally I heard from several of your teammates that had seen the article, heard about it. And their only response was, yeah, that sounds like him, to put yourself there, and you were quoted in it, you don't think, you act, and you took the opportunity to just act and to help those people out. And I think many of your teammates responded the same way with that kind of class act, that sounded like him. So I guess in response with those kids, I would say thank you for your action.
KIM POLLOCK: Well, thank you man. Thanks for mentioning that. It happened so fast. It was probably seven or eight minutes long. But afterwards the adrenaline started pumping. And I just sat on the side of the shore for about four or five minutes just shaking because I said, what did I just do? What happened? [LAUGHS]
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. So I want to I want to cap this to give you an opportunity to give a little bit of advice to maybe a young student athlete that might be wanting to go to Illinois or an athlete that currently is in Illinois or maybe one that just recently graduated that's now moving on to the real world. If you could give some advice to an Illini?
KIM POLLOCK: I would say live the moment. Make sure that when you're enjoying-- when you're doing what you're doing now in Illinois, your whole experience, just the academics, the sports, everything else, live in the moment and really enjoy it. It's a special time in your life. The minute you graduate and go off and start having a career and family and responsibilities, a lot of this special bubble that you're in is going to evaporate.
And make sure you value your friendships. The people that you're socializing with now, that you're going out on Friday nights with, that you're competing with, they'll be your lifelong friends because they are sharing the same experiences as you are. And make an effort to stay in touch, and you will never regret it. It was a special time. And I don't miss the academic part of it. But the other parts of it, a lot of the other things are just so much fun. And Illinois is so special with the opportunities it affords you and what they've done to support adaptive sports. And take advantage of it every second of every day that you can. It's pretty unique, pretty special.
MATT BUCHI: Thank you to Ken Pollack for talking with us today. Thank you for listening to the Illinois Wheelchair Athletics Alumni podcast. As always, go Illini.