University of Pittsburgh

good sport


An all-time love of the game

Written by Jennifer Bails

The Pitt men’s basketball team made its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in spring 1974. Fans of the game certainly remember All-American star forward Billy Knight, who carried the top-10 team to a 25-4 finish under legendary coach Charles “Buzz” Ridl. If history were a fair referee, they would also remember the feats of John Sikora, who became the team’s manager the next season.

Like all good team managers, Sikora compiled statistics for the coaching staff, assisted with practice drills, cared for the team’s equipment, and dished out water and words of support to the hardworking Panthers squad. But as a talented basketball player himself, Sikora never envisioned watching the action on court from the sidelines—especially not from a wheelchair.

It only takes a moment for dreams to change. For Sikora, that moment came two weeks before high school graduation, when he saw the oncoming headlights of the drunk driver who left him paralyzed from the waist down.

A year later, in 1972, he arrived at Pitt. “I was still learning how to do basic things like dress myself and take a shower,” Sikora says. “But I went to college with the attitude that I was going to conquer my physical disability. You can either give up on life or realize there’s still a lot of life left to live.”

That same courage, iron will, and self-determination served Sikora well during the three years he spent managing the Pitt basketball team, beginning in fall 1974. He applied for the job with encouragement from student-athletes on campus who knew about his lifelong passion for sports and working knowledge of the game.

Kirk Bruce (EDUC ’76)—who played for Ridl’s record-breaking team and is now Pitt’s associate athletic director—says Sikora was an inspiration during their long, grueling season. “It was hard to look at John and not be motivated to do your best no matter how tired you were, because we knew he would have loved to be playing,” Bruce says.

Sikora’s experience with the Pitt team made him realize that he didn’t have to give up his hoop dreams, despite his spinal cord injury. He could, in fact, play.  He went back to the hardwood as part of four medal-winning USA national wheelchair basketball teams, and he helped to form the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers team. Most recently, he served as assistant coach of the USA Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team, which won gold last year in the Paralympic Games in Beijing.

Sikora (A&S ’76) also is making it possible for other people with physical challenges to lead active, healthy lives through the HOPE Network. The nonprofit organization—founded 12 years ago by Sikora—offers sports and

recreation opportunities ranging from cycling to golf, tennis, and basketball for adults and children who are

physically challenged. The network also runs trauma awareness and prevention workshops that teach students

about the power of making good decisions to avoid serious injuries.

Thanks to the HOPE Network, thousands of people with disabilities don’t have to search hard to find new ways

to fulfill their dreams. Sikora blazed that path for them. Their work now is to keep moving ahead.