CHAMPAIGN — Josh Pierce is an uncompromisingly positive human being.

The St. Thomas More senior nearly always sports a smile on his face, no matter the situation.

But even Pierce couldn’t have anticipated what opportunities might present themselves when he began playing wheelchair basketball in 2018.

“I said, ‘If I can play on this team, improve myself, be better,’ that was all the thoughts I had,” said Pierce, referring to the Peoria-based program he began with. “I never thought to be able to play basketball in college.”

He’ll do just that soon enough. Pierce signed his National Letter of Intent with the University of Illinois’ men’s wheelchair basketball team on Tuesday.

He was one of five Sabers seniors to celebrate a college sports decision, flanked by Ryan Hendrickson (Creighton men’s track and field), Cabott Craft (Butler men’s track and field), Dane Taylor (Marian men’s soccer) and Mallory Monahan (Illinois Wesleyan volleyball).

“In college, it’s very competitive. It’s hard. So I didn’t think I was able to make it (initially),” Pierce said. “I feel very happy, joyful.”

Those words also can describe the effect Pierce leaves on those around him.

“He’s definitely a very energetic kid out on the basketball court. He’s a very polite and well-mannered young man,” said Travis Schaf, an assistant coach in the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana wheelchair basketball program with which Pierce most recently competed. “He does really well in high school, and I think he’s going to do really well in college.”

Starting from scratch

Pierce knew nothing about playing basketball when he initially lived in China, prior to being adopted by Sue and Bryan Pierce and coming to the United States more than five years ago.

A fortunate neighborhood friendship changed that for Josh Pierce.

Jon McNamara, a Centennial graduate who currently is a senior and wheelchair basketball athlete at Illinois, lived down the street from Pierce when the two were younger.

McNamara said Pierce’s adoptive parents connected with McNamara’s parents, before the two young men ever met, about raising a child who uses a wheelchair.

McNamara eventually got to know Pierce personally, and McNamara decided to share his interest in and involvement with wheelchair basketball.

“I just showed him clips of professional wheelchair basketball players and how far you could go with it,” said McNamara, a 22-year-old who will graduate from college later this year. “You can go to the Paralympics and all over the world playing the sport. I showed him this is what the high end of the sport looks like.”

“His family introduced me to try out for their team,” Pierce added. “I had my first tryout, and it turned out really good.”

That team was the Peoria Wildcats, with which Pierce played for in 2018. His time spent with that program also allowed him to form bonds with members of the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana team he would later join.

“I saw there are a lot of good players from all different states,” Pierce said. “They were able to help me improve.”

Developing his game

Pierce paused his playing career early in the COVID-19 pandemic before returning in 2021

That’s when he switched to the Indianapolis-based Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana team, receiving permission from the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association squad in New Lenox that he otherwise would have been required to play with under National Wheelchair Basketball Association rules.

Pierce correctly identified early on his speed pushing a chair could serve as a major benefit on the court.

“The first thing I knew about him was he was a very fast player,” McNamara said. “The shooting and ball-handling came a little later on in his development, but out of the gate, he was a very fast player.”

Being in a wheelchair his entire life has allowed Pierce to cultivate upper-body strength and learn how to move himself in a quick manner.

He does sometimes drop by his local YMCA to lift weights. Pierce also will shoot baskets there. And he’s come to realize that players occasionally flipping over in their chairs or jamming their fingers — he’s had the latter happen to him on multiple occasions — are just part of the sporting experience.

“My first time I played, the only thing I know is to speed as fast as I can. That’s all I cared about,” Pierce said. “But right now I care about how to work with my teammates ... to learn all different strategies and just work as a team.”

Gaining experienceMcNamara remembers Pierce being part of the Peoria Wildcats program when it won the 2018 IHSA wheelchair basketball state championship in Peoria. McNamara feels that tournament provided Pierce with a formative experience.

“That catapulted him to the idea of, ‘I can do well with the sport,’” McNamara said. “He picked it up really fast.”

Pierce returned to the Wildcats earlier this month to vie for the 2023 IHSA wheelchair basketball state title. The Synergy Bulls, out of Carol Stream, ended up winning the state title in an event played at the Activities and Recreation Center on the UI campus.

“I was able to watch a lot of his games,” McNamara said. “Nine times out of 10 (Pierce) was the fastest guy there, along with taking most of the shots and ball-handling. It was good to see his progression.”

Pierce was grateful for the chance to compete for an IHSA state title as a senior. He also appreciated the opportunity to play some exhibition minutes inside State Farm Center during the Friday portion of last month’s corresponding IHSA boys’ basketball state tournament.

“It felt very different,” Pierce said. “There’s a lot of lights surrounding you and the court, so I was nervous. There was a loud audience to cheer for you.”

Finding a future home

Pierce’s ties to Illini wheelchair basketball through his friendship with McNamara and via attending past camps the program hosts made him a natural recruiting target for coach Matt Buchi’s men’s team.

“I feel welcomed there, and I think that’s the team I want to be (on),” Pierce said. “You want to be with someone you feel comfortable (with), with your friends.”

Before Pierce signed with Illinois on Tuesday, he suited up for Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana one final time in last weekend’s 2023 National Wheelchair Basketball Association Junior Varsity Invitational Tournament in Wichita, Kan., where RHI Turnstone placed sixth.

“Josh played well. With him being our tallest kid, he got in there and he got rebounds ... and he got our shots up underneath,” Schaf said. “He doesn’t get to come to our practices because of how far away he lives, so I can see a lot of stuff he works on on his own. He’s a very determined young man.”

That determination will be critical for Pierce to maintain in college.

“It’s very easy to get discouraged early on in college if you don’t put your head down and work,” McNamara said. “I try to lay out a little bit of a road map for him to know what’s going on.”

Pierce’s ceaseless positivity is sure to give him a boost as an Illini.

As part of his preparation for college, Pierce has joined STM’s boys’ tennis team. It’s a sport he’s never played competitively until this year.

“That will help me build some muscles, and maybe during summertime I will go to the (U of I wheelchair basketball) camp,” Pierce said. “Hopefully in the future, maybe (I’ll) play in some big games.”