Steve Emt competes at the Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games on Mar. 10, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Steve Emt, a member of the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Curling Team, woke up Monday morning to a flood of texts, voicemails and emails. Even his old classmates from West Point in 1989 were coming out of the woodwork to check in.
They had all seen him the night before in their living rooms on Episode 7 of “The Last Dance.”
Emt, a former walk-on to the UConn basketball team, was featured in a scene chatting with Michael Jordan in the Chicago Bulls locker room after a game in 1998. He had been college teammates with the Bulls’ Scott Burrell, who provided him a lower-level ticket and locker room pass that evening.
“The first couple seconds, I was struck,” Emt said of meeting Jordan. “He put his hand out and shook my hand—and I’m 6-foot-5, a pretty big guy—but his hand just completely engulfed my hand. If you pause it and look at my face when he came up to me, it looks like I saw a ghost.
“Here is Michael Jordan, the most well-known athlete in the world, at 10:30 on a Saturday night in the locker room with me. He could have very easily gone home to his wife and kids, but he chose to hang out there for 30 minutes with me, my buddy Jerry and Scott Burrell and just talk about everything from cars to basketball to kids.”
At UConn, Emt played for famed coach Jim Calhoun, alongside many future NBA players, including Ray Allen, Donnell Marshall, Kevin Ollie and Burrell. He had heard from Burrell three weeks ago that he would likely be making a cameo in “The Last Dance,” but he wasn’t sure which episode. Together with his wife on the couch, they were ecstatic when he appeared on their TV screen on Sunday evening.
“It was awesome. To be a part of something so historic and huge about the greatest athlete to play any sport was absolutely amazing,” Emt said. “(Jordan’s) the best basketball player in my opinion to ever lace up his shoes and the most famous athlete in the world.”
Emt’s meeting with Jordan came nearly three years after a life-changing car accident took away his ability to walk. Sports had always played a major role in Emt’s life—he lettered in three sports in high school and earned himself a walk-on spot on UConn’s basketball team in 1992—but when his truck flipped off the interstate one night in 1995, everything changed. Having to be rescued by helicopter, he had broken most of his ribs and his back and severed his spinal cord.
Emt dabbled in various sports for 17 years after his accident, even handcycling the New York City Marathon in 2010, and coached high school basketball for 20 years. But it wasn’t until 2014 that he was introduced to wheelchair curling. He was reclining on vacation at Pie in the Sky cafe in Cape Cod when former U.S. Paralympic curling coach Tony Colacchio approached him from around the corner and said: “With your build, I can make you into a Paralympian.”
“What the heck is curling?” Emt quipped.
Emt spent the next 30 minutes listening to Colacchio as he downloaded him on curling. The following week, Emt found himself on the ice throwing his first stone, falling in love with the sport on the spot.
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Emt’s now alternating his training between weights, handcyling, meditation and dry firing (rehearsing throwing stones in his mind), while also watching plenty of game film during the coronavirus pandemic, to keep himself fresh for the World Wheelchair B Curling Championships in October in Finland.
“I’m learning as much as I possibly can now so that when this does all settle down and we’re back on the ice again, I can definitely be ready to go,” he said.
Emt’s certainly come a long way since his 30-minute chat with Jordan, back when he hadn’t the slightest inkling of what curling was and still had not come to terms with his truck accident.
“It absolutely impacted me in a tremendous way for the rest of my life,” Emt said after watching back his conversation with Jordan. “It’s obviously something I’ll never ever forget.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.