It's without a doubt that the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game will be loaded with good times and laughs. Nick Cannon vs. Kevin Hart—that's a given. But among the stacked roster of celebrities participating in Friday night's festivities, there's a fierce competitor set to inspire the nation.
If you haven't heard the name Blake Leeper yet, you will. Leeper has bronze, silver, and gold medals under his belt. And the 25-year-old firecracker of a personality from Chula Vista, CA, had been told he would never walk—or play basketball. But those grim predictions clearly never stuck, and Leeper has successfully gone on to become an elite-level Paralympian athlete. His sights are set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, taking home the MVP award at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, and to set an example for those that stare adversity face-to-face every day, that they, too, can accomplish anything.
Men's Fitness: What are you looking forward to most on Friday night?
Blake Leeper: Hopefully when I’m out there they will see me—a guy with no legs—playing basketball. It's something people have never seen before, it's going to be a first, and that’s the beauty of it. I get a chance to present the whole world with the power of changing perception. If there’s a kid out there who sees me and says, "Oh my God. Blake is out there playing with no legs and I have just one leg or one arm—I can do it, too.' It changes their whole perception. For me, Bo Jackson was my hero, and for him to play on a professional level was all I needed. If he can do it, I can do it. It can be done, and I hope on Friday that’s what will be accomplished.
MF: How does it feel to be selected to play?
BL: Oh, my gosh, you have to understand—I grew up playing basketball. That was my sport. It just so happened that I’m a fast runner, and I fell in love with running, but basketball was my first love. It’s awesome to see how far I came and stuff I can do and say on the court next Friday on ESPN. If a kid is going through something, they can get something from my story being out there, fighting and overcoming it all.
MF: What are you going to be doing over the next couple days leading up to the game?
BL: I'm going to be making a lot of interviews and making a couple of appearances. But for me, I’m just trying to stay focused. I played in high school, so I’m going to try to put myself back to those days.
MF: Any preparation?
BL: The night before, Michael Jordan is hosting a practice for us, so it’s going to be awesome. I’m going to get my shot down because I’m going to take it seriously. I want to find my hot spot. I want people to take me seriously, and at first I know they won’t, but by the end of this game they will. So, I’m going to give them my all, because, to me, it’s the championship. My goal is to be MVP. That’s the type of competitor I am. It’s going to be a lot, but that’s what my heart wants.
MF: You have a bronze, silver, and gold medal already. What's next for you competitively?
BL: I’m trying to make the Olympics games coming up in 2016. So I’m just trying to work as hard as I can to be the fastest double blade runner in the world—that’s my goal, that’s my ambition. And I hope it opens up more doors in my life on the competition level. I want to be as fast as I can, and for the last few years I feel like I’ve seen a development. And to just be in that moment, 80,000 people cheering for me, seeing my family, my friends—that whole moment. Going back to Rio is what I need to do, and I need to train so I can prepare myself to be ready.
MF: What do you think attributes to either your greatest strength or your ability to still make things happen, no matter what you’ve been up against?
BL: It's really because of my family; what they instilled in me with values and mindset. Even at an early age, my mom made the decision that they were not going to treat me any different. The doctors said I wouldn’t walk. They told my father I wouldn’t play basketball. I have an older brother who’s a few years older than me, and as a child, to see my older brother do it, meant I wanted to do it well. It really was my surroundings. My mind said, "If I you can do it, I can do it better." I kind of used sports as a way to show the community, my friends, and family that I’m serious about this and I’m a hard worker regardless of my disabilities. I’m just as strong as everybody else. That’s been my mindset ever since, and I think that’s why it was an easy transition for me to become a Paralympian, because what’s on my mind is to be the best in the world. That goes for the classroom, the track, the basketball court, whatever the situation might be. I want to be the best, and it’s pretty cool to say that I’m doing it on a prosthetic leg.
MF: How would you describe the word "disability"?
BL: It’s kind of like the elephant in the room. People are awkward. People look at me and they’re too afraid to ask me questions, or what happened to me. I do what I can, but I can’t deny that I am missing both my legs. I do wear prosthetic legs, but the thing is, I have a thousand other abilities, so I can overcome my minor disability. At the end of the day, nobody is perfect. Whether you’re short, tall, wear glasses, in some type of situation—just try to find a better way to overcome that situation. So, yes, I have my disabilities, but I also have a thousand other abilities.
MF: Your accomplishments are inspiring alone, but you also do motivational speaking. What else are you doing out there?
BL: I feel like I want to be the ambassador for the disabled and let them know that there is someone out there fighting this, and educating the world, and doing the best he can. And to let them know just because you’re disabled or in a wheelchair does not mean you live below a normal life. It means you have to excel. People’s perceptions and what they believe are pretty low, and you have to build and fight through that and do the best you can.
Don't miss The American Blade Runner Blake Leeper in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game on Friday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.