Hoop Dreams: Josh Turek's Basketball PassionSep 28, 2022 09:20AM ● By Greg Echlin
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Hoops are a common theme in Josh Turek's life. There are the two bolted to each end of the basketball court, and there are the two bolted to each side of the wheelchair he uses to move between them. There's also the pair draped around his neck: two Paralympic gold medals, each reflecting years of struggle, determination, and ultimately, glory. In life, as in sport, Josh has never hesitated to round the next corner–and for that, he’s emerged a champion.
Reflecting on his basketball career while taking in his picturesque view of the Missouri River out the window of his Council Bluffs home, Josh said he feels immensely proud of what he's achieved. It was only last year when he retired from professional sports after having been part of the USA wheelchair basketball team that won back-to-back golds at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo (held in 2021).
He recalls saying to his teammates, “‘You know what? Such few athletes get to choose their finish line. This is definitely it for me. This is the perfect way to stop. I’ve got a gold medal around my neck. I’ve got USA across my chest. I’ve got the stars and stripes around my shoulders.’”
Diagnosed as a child with spina bifida, which affects nerves and the spinal cord, Josh faced major physical challenges; yet his love of basektball drove him to develop his skills and outwork the competition.
During his college days at Southwest Minnesota State University, he wanted to take his wheelchair basketball talents as far as possible, but no one foresaw a 20-year professional career in the sport. Not even his younger siblings, John Turek and Elisha Hartzell, who also played professional basketball overseas.
“Josh was the first to go play professionally and the last, so he beat everyone,” his sister Elisha said with a laugh.
Some of Josh’s most enjoyable years came when he played in close proximity to each of his siblings in separate seasons. While prepping for the 2016 Paralympics, Josh tuned up his game in France the same year John was there. Several years earlier, Elisha got a first-hand look at Josh’s lifestyle when both she and her brother played in Spain.
When reflecting on her brother’s 20-year career, she said, “To do that for so many years [being] so strict with his diet, his workouts, and all that, that’s what blows my mind, because mentally most people couldn’t do that.”
“I’ve always been kind of an extremist with everything,” Josh said. “If I’m going to do something, I’m all the way in or I’m all the way out.”
Two years after graduating from SMSU in 2002 as its all-time leading scorer in wheelchair basketball with 4,024 career points, Turek played at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, the first of four Paralympics in which he would represent his county.
Josh had his first tryout with the USA national team the same year he graduated from college.
“I knew the passion that I had for basketball and I knew I was willing to sacrifice to achieve the highest level possible,” he said. “I had no idea that professional wheelchair basketball existed. I had no idea that I was going to ever be able to play for a Paralympic team, let alone four Paralympics and two gold medals.”
Ironically, SMSU men’s basketball coach, Tim Miles at the time, tried to recruit John to join his older brother at the NCAA Division II school. But the 6-foot-9 forward ended up playing at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (2001-’05), where Miles would later coach from 2012 to 2019.
“I started getting recruited at the Division I level in my junior year, so it didn’t work out,” said John, who lives in southern California since retirement from professional basketball in Europe. “I remember Tim Miles having numerous conversations with me about playing there [at SMSU].”
Unlike his defense-minded younger brother, Josh Turek was a shooter and holds the SMSU one-game scoring record with 62 points.
“I always said about international basketball, ‘You’ve got to be really good at everything, but you’ve got to have a world-class skill set at one thing.’” he said. “Without question, my skill set was shooting and scoring.”
Josh stays involved with the game as a member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) High Performance Committee with input on the national team roster that will eventually represent the USA at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
He works full-time with a company called New Motion, which provides mobility devices for the disabled community. Also, with a degree in political science at SMSU, he was active this year as a candidate for the Iowa statehouse.
“It’s been an easy transition truthfully,” he said. “I think that’s because I had done the work on the front side to make sure that I was prepared for the back side.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.