Playing Basketball an outlet for Lincoln man with physical impairment

By Paul Lonardo

Jay Cusati may have been born with what others call a handicap, but he does not look at it like that. The congenital condition, called ulnar club hand, leaves a child’s wrist in a fixed and bent position toward the side of the hand with the little finger. It is the result of the ulna bone, which connects the elbow to the forearm, not being formed correctly in the womb. In Jay’s case, the condition affected only two fingers on his hand.

“That’s the way God wanted me to be,” Jay says. “Everybody’s different. I don’t like using the word handicapped, because if you really think about it, everybody has a handicap of one kind or another.”

The birth defect that left Jay’s left arm malformed did not diminish his love of basketball or his drive to excel at the sport. Growing up, Jay wanted to be a basketball player. It was his first love, and it provided the perfect outlet that Jay needed to prove to himself and everyone else that he could do it. But it wasn’t easy on either front.

“I used to hide my arm all the time,” Jay says. “No matter whether it was winter, spring, summer, fall, I’d wear a jacket, long sleeves. I was self-conscious so I kept my left arm hidden. Nobody knew really.”

The basketball court was a place where Jay could not hide his arm, and that was good for him.

“The only place I ever had my arm on display was when I was playing basketball,” Jay says. “It was because I developed some talent early. And it was something I loved. Basketball has always been a major part of my life, helped me to understand and realize who I am.”

Playing point guard, there was nothing Jay enjoyed more than dishing the ball out to his teammates and getting everyone involved in the game. But if nobody was open, Jay could take the shot himself. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do with the ball. The proficiency he developed for the game came at the price of a lot of hard work and time spent honing his skills.

“There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood who liked to play,” Jay says. “I played morning through night all year round, in all weather; sleet, snow, ice, all day every day.”

He started playing basketball when he was about six or seven years old, and he has fond memories of attending youth summer basketball camps at Providence College.

“PC had an amazing summer camp,” Jay says, “and I went there from about 8 to 18. On the last day of camp one year, the assistant basketball coach from Dean College in Franklin, Mass. came up to me and offered me a full scholarship. It was the summer before my senior year in high school. I was so excited.”

Jay began working out like a mad man getting himself in shape and ready, but shortly before he was going to sign to attend Dean College, he injured his right knee, tearing his ACL and meniscus while working out at PC.

“It just demolished my dream,” Jay says. “I was so depressed I didn’t even get the surgery. I only recently had it done.”

The feelings of discouragement and isolation were not new to Jay. Growing up, he suffered from severe depression and social phobia and anxiety. He didn’t want to go outside. He would lie to his friends so he wouldn’t have to leave the house. There were some anger issues as well, as he dealt with being different from his peers.

“It was tough growing up,” Jay admits. But he had an ally, someone he could always count on. “My mother was my backbone. She was constantly there with me, whatever I was going through.”

From the time he was about 18 months old until he was grown, Jay had close to 10 operations on his arm, and his mother was right there by his side.

“She tried as a single mother to help me out so I could try to figure out who I am, but as a teen, in particular, going through what I was going through, you just don’t want to hear it. I felt like I didn’t have anybody, but she was always right there.”

Jay says having a strong mother, who always told him never to give up, provided light in very dark times. He had almost completely given up a few times, but his mother saved him from himself.

“The whole time,” Jay says, “it was me not accepting myself. Everyone else accepted me. They liked me for who I was.”

There were some neighborhood bullies and kids in school who were mean, insensitive and just plain ignorant. Basketball was an escape, but Jay’s mother helped get him into counseling, which he says helped him tremendously. As Jay matured, he came to realize that he was not alone, and that he was far from the only one who had to deal with adversity and challenges in life. This newfound understanding allowed him not only to fully accept himself, but also ignited a desire to reach out and want to help others.

“That’s what I like doing,” Jay says. “I like to help people. Talk to them. Tell them what I know. If I can reach one person get through a rough time, I did what I was supposed to do.”

As he got older, and his basketball dreams of glory began to fade, that was when Jay started to write. It was therapeutic, but it was also a way to reach out to people.

“I just started to write and write and write,” Jay says. “I really got into poetry, and it became another outlet for me, taking the place of basketball. Currently, I’m working on an inspirational autobiography.”

Jay is the Sports Coordinator for the McColl YMCA in Lincoln, where he has been for the past four years. He runs the men’s adult basketball leagues. There is also a youth league for all ages that he oversees. With skill classes and one-on-one training, there is still plenty of basketball in his life, even if he is not playing as much as he used to.

These days, Jay’s life is busier and fuller than he ever could have imagined. On June 30, his girlfriend Samantha gave birth to Josiah Jordan, and Jay couldn’t be happier with his new son and his family. Jay realizes that his life is going to change dramatically, but he looks forward to the challenges.

“Oh yeah, I’m ready,” he says with confidence. “You can never really be fully ready, but I feel like I’m prepared.”

Jay hopes that he is an inspiration to others, but it is his son who has become an instant inspiration to him to teach him all the things his mother taught him, among other things, including finishing his book.