Nichols, a Korean War veteran battling multiple sclerosis, turns 79 today. But he celebrated on Saturday by watching his first University of Oregon men’s basketball game in something like a decade and a half, and his first ever at the new Matthew Knight Arena.
“I’ve been wanting to come here and see this place,” he said from his second-deck perch. “And now I am.”
It happened thanks to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the folks at MPJ Mobility in Springfield, who together outfitted him with a powered chair, a ramp for his house and a wheelchair-accessible van. With that, a man who spent four years in the wartime Air Force and a career driving railroad trains is on the move again.
Born in Klamath Falls but raised in Eugene since the age of 2, Nichols is a lifelong Ducks fan. He watched football games when they still were played at Hayward Field and had been a regular at McArthur Court since he was in junior high.
After the war, he took his own kids to games, walking to Mac Court from their nearby home near East 17th Avenue and Orchard Street. But about the time he was thinking about retirement, he noticed something strange about his right leg.
His wife, Shirley, remembers seeing him mowing the lawn and noticing that one leg looked smaller than the other. He started to limp.
But it took three years for doctors to diagnose a relatively rare form of MS, one that affects only one side of the body. Over the years, it became harder for Nichols to get around. He used a walker or a wheelchair when he had to get somewhere, but eventually the MS left his right leg stiffened, and he couldn’t navigate the steps at Autzen Stadium or Mac Court anymore.
Then last year, someone suggested that the VA might be able to help. His daughter, Deena Wanstall, took a day off to drive him to the VA medical center in Roseburg, starting a process that ended Friday when Roger and Shirley picked up their converted van at MPJ Mobility.
“It seems pretty slick,” Nichols said as he got a tour of the converted 2007 Toyota Sienna, complete with automatic sliding side doors and an electric ramp.
The real treat came Saturday, when Wanstall drove the three of them to Matt Arena in the van. Nichols had a spot in the wheelchair area just above the first level, near the northeast corner of the court.
Dressed in a Duck green shirt, he watched his team take the floor for the first time in ages.
“This is quite a place,” he said. “It’s almost like where the pros play basketball.”
Wanstall said she remembers going to games as a youngster, long before Nichols’ illness set in. When it became clear that he would be getting the powered chair and van, giving back much of his mobility, the first thing she thought of was getting him tickets to a basketball game.
“It was always a part of our lives,” she said. “He used to take us all the time.
“So I’m really happy I could get him here today.”
And the Ducks didn’t let him down, either. Down at halftime after a lackluster performance, the team pulled out a seven-point win over UCLA, sending Nichols home happy.
“They really looked good,” he said afterward. “It was a good game.
“It was a good day.”
“I’ve been wanting to come here and see this place. And now I am.”
- ROGER NICHOLS, FIRST-TIME MATTHEW KNIGHT ARENA VISITOR