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On the 29th October 2000, the curtain was drawn on one of Australia’s proudest moments. For six weeks Sydney had hosted the world with the most successful Olympic and Paralympic Games ever.

The Seekers were the closing act and as Judith Durham‘s voice rang out across the stadium singing ‘The Carnival is Over’, for the Wollongong Roller Hawks, things were just getting started.

Among the crowd was wheelchair basketballer Eino Okkonen. He was at the Games as the attaché to the Finnish Paralympic team, an Australian point of contact for any of the team’s needs.  


It just so happened that he’d also been given approval to enter a side into the National Wheelchair Basketball League the following year. 


“We needed an import. Joey was one of the best players in the world. Probably the best player in the world at the time,” recalls Okkonen.

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Pic: Joey Johnson. Photo Credit: Basketball Canada

“Joey” is Joey Johnson, the star centre for the Gold Medal winning Canadian men’s wheelchair basketball team at the Sydney Paralympics.


Johnson was enjoying the euphoria of the Closing Ceremony. Canada had just defeated the Netherlands 57-43 to claim their first gold medal in wheelchair basketball, the win made that much sweeter with the Canadian women’s team also claiming gold.


Nothing beats winning a Gold medal.  Especially your first one,” says Johnson. “The whole journey of training and the time commitment you put in.  The sacrifices that family and friends make so you can be at your best.  After winning, it makes it all worth it.  So many emotions flood through you and it was hard to wipe the smile off of my face.”


“Sydney was a great Games.  They were my second and they blew Atlanta out of the water in terms of fan support and just the organisation of the games as a whole,” says Johnson.


Canada had finished fifth in Atlanta in 1996 and third at the World Championships in 1998.


“I remember as a team we were a group of young guys who knew we could be great, but hadn't been able to prove it yet.  Sydney was a coming out party for the team.  Being able to win our first Gold medal there, it will always be special to me.”


“At the Closing Ceremony, it was very casual for the athletes.  We could walk around the stadium on the field or up where all the fans were.  Seeing as we had just won the Gold, myself and a teammate were walking around where the fans were and showing off the medal.”  


“It was an awesome experience, signing autographs and having people buy us beers as we walked by.”


“After a while it was getting a bit crazy up in the stands so we headed back down to the field.”  


Okkonen recalls being among the throng of people.  


“At the closing ceremony I was there among the thousands of people and there in front of me, dressed in his all white Canadian uniform was Joey Johnson,” says Okkonen.


Eino hesitated, debating whether he would approach Johnson or not.


“I thought I’ve got nothing to lose.” 


“That is when I saw a gentleman come limping over to me,” adds Johnson. “My first thought was that he wanted an autograph or a picture with the medal.”  


“He made a beeline towards me, stuck out his hand and said, "Joey Johnson, my name is Eino and I have started up a new club in Wollongong and you are going to be my import player".  I almost laughed, seeing as I had no idea who he was.”


The pair spoke for no more than two or three minutes before exchanging details. By the time Johnson had returned to the US he’d received an email outlining the terms and how much the club could pay him.


“Didn't think twice, I agreed to spend a few months down there and loved every minute of it.”


“I was at a good place in my career at that point. I had a few years at university learning from great coaches. I had already competed at the 96 games and 97 World Juniors so I was very confident in my abilities and knowledge of the game.”  


“When I got to Wollongong, I saw a group of athletes who loved the game, but I could tell they had never been taught some of the basic fundamentals of the game.”  


“Being able to share that knowledge was easy for me.  The basics of how to set a pick or when to set it.  How to work two man games effectively and how to play defense with good positioning.”


“I have always prided myself on being the teammate that would do anything to help the team win.  I would fill everyone’s water bottles every game if that is what it would have taken for us to win.  I would never settle for that role, but if that's where I needed to start, that's what I did.”  


“My first season there, we weren't the deepest offensive team.  We had some great players, Tristan Knowles for example.  But he was very young and hadn't learnt how to maximize his offensive potential yet.  So I changed my game up a bit, took a lot more outside shots and three pointers.” 

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Pic: Roller Hawks Inaugural Team - 2001 - Back Row (left to right) - Andrew Tarrant, Eino Okkonen, Darren Skuse, Joey Johnson, Tristan Knowles, Nick Higgins (Coach), Frank Castelli (Assistant Coach)
Front Row - Brendan Dowler, Mark Sullivan, Donny McBride, Eric Klein, Darren Hayes.

With Johnson there to guide them, the brand new club quickly became a competitive outfit, missing the playoffs in their first season by one game. 


“In the last round we played Adelaide,” recalls Okkonen. “If we win that game we’re in the playoffs.”


“Joey’s axle breaks on his wheelchair. He comes off the court for five minutes and in that time Adelaide gets ahead of us and by the time Joey gets back on there’s not enough time to catch up.”


A scheduling conflict prevented Johnson from returning in 2002 but he made sure he was available in 2003, vowing “I’ll be back, I’ll help you win this title!”


By the second season I was there, players like Tristan had blossomed into offensive juggernauts. So I didn't have to score as much and I focused more on my defensive presence and facilitating on offense.”


The improvement in the team by 2003 was enough to see them win their first NWBL title, defeating Brisbane 87-57 in the grand final.


Pic: Wollongong Roller Hawks - 2003 NWBL Champions Photo Credit: Illawarra Mercury

“I can honestly say that winning the championship in my second season there, is one of my proudest moments in basketball.  The league was stacked with stars that season and I don't think that anyone gave us a chance to win it.  But we played the best as a "team" and overcame all the "star" studded teams to win it all.  I was very proud to be able to contribute and lead that team.”


For the Roller Hawks’ inaugural championship to hold such a special place in Johnson’s heart says everything. His career includes 5 Paralympic Games including 3 gold medals, 4 World Championships including 1 gold, a World Junior Championship, three Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League titles, one NWBA (US) Championship and five European Champions Cup titles.


Johnson continues to remain heavily involved in the sport. He has been in Tokyo as Assistant Coach for the Canadian men’s wheelchair basketball team and it’s clear that 21 years on from that encounter at the Closing Ceremony, his legacy at the Roller Hawks remains.


“You can’t under-state what he taught us. At the higher level there’s a larger technical aspect and he taught us those little things that take years to learn,” says Okkonen. 


The lessons and the standard he set for others has been passed on from one generation to the next. 


He set a path that his teammates could follow all the way to achieving their own national and Paralympic success. 


“We had Brett Stibners who had been picked to play for Australia in indoor hockey, so he’s got this will to win. Tristan Knowles, there’s not another person with the same drive to always do better and we had Andrew Tarrant who’s also played rep basketball and a couple of Kiwis. You put those guys together and there’s a lot of will to win.”


“We’d train hard, we’d bump each other, we never held anything back and Joey taught us that.”