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Wheelchair basketball is a great game. The athletes may not have the full use of their arms or legs but they are competitors all the same. They have a passion for their sport.

The game is played by amateurs and professionals in many countries of the world but unfortunately it does not get the recognition it deserves. It is a spin-off of “able bodied” basketball in that there are modifications in the rules.

Please enjoy this first of hopefully many interesting articles on Wheelchair Basketball. Please click on the following link for more great information from the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation.

Basketball on Wheels
by Bruce Enns (October 2005)

Have you ever heard of Patrick Anderson? Or Joey Johnson? How about Danielle Peers…or Chantal Benoit? Maybe Lior Dror or Jake Counts? Well, how about Rudi Buckley?

No, you probably don’t know of them, but you should. They are basketball players…wonderful players who play while strapped into wheelchairs. They play the same game we do except, well, let’s just say it’s a little different. The rules basically are the same.

You play five a side, you have eight seconds to get the ball over centre and you have 24 seconds to shoot the ball. You can shoot two’s or three’s and there are violations. Fouls can be committed with the hands and with the chair.

Dribbling is a bit different because you often have to keep a hand (or both hands) on the wheel. So, you are allowed to carry the ball and even double dribble. The rule says you can push or hold your wheels only twice in succession before you have to dribble the ball at least once.

The greatest difference in the game is that, because of various disabilities, players cannot use their legs so, the game is played in a special chair (more about the chair later). Instead of footwork skills, these guys have to have great chair skills…phenomenal chair skills. Some of them can really fly.

They can stop on a dime, they tilt on one wheel to get through traffic or to increase their reach, they twist and turn on the move and they absolutely wear you out if you’ve never played the game before. They say it takes three or four years of concentrated practice learning just the chair skills necessary to compete at a fairly high level.

Wheelchair basketball photo

Pat Anderson and Joey Johnson (Best players in the world-Canadian) defending Lior Dror (top Euro player-Israeli)

Individual skills are more difficult to learn than in our running game. Just imagine finally getting your wheelchair up to full speed as a defender barrels in on you and suddenly a pass comes at your head. If you reach up with two hands you might lose your balance or you might crash into the defender.

Of course you can’t jump and you can’t sidestep your defender…you’re in a wheelchair. Maintaining your balance has a whole new meaning when you’re strapped into a moving chair because a lot of this game has to be played with one hand. One hand catching, one hand passing and rebounding and even one hand shooting because most of the time at least one hand is on a wheel to provide stability and direction.

Some wheelchair basketball players are superb dribblers, but because wheelchairs don’t move laterally (the two big wheels face forward remember?) it’s very difficult to beat someone off the dribble like we do. So, dribbling is used primarily to create better passing angles, to eat up empty space quickly or to set up a dribble screen for a good outside shooter.

Ah, shooting…another huge difference from what we are used to. As a coach, I have always taught players that almost all the force required for a good shot comes from your legs. Sure, wrists, hands and the extension of the arms provide some power, but mainly they produce good direction while the legs do the hard work.

In the game of wheelchair basketball the legs are just dead weight sitting in a chair and suddenly, your old technique is not good enough. I won’t get into details except to say that just like in our game, there are some weird and wonderful shooting styles that players adopt and many more severely handicapped players revert to the old two handed shooting method.

The tactics of the game also open up a whole new world. In the running game most people watch the ball and even what is developing in front of the ball. In wheelchair basketball there is another essential area of play – what is brewing behind the ball. Just imagine Kobe Bryant being held up in the backcourt (legally) by a defender while the rest of the Lakers are on a fast break waiting for him.

I realize that it just doesn’t happen because Kobe would just run around his defender. But in a chair it’s very tough to get around another big chair that is attempting to impede your direct path to the front court. In wheelchair basketball this tactic is called “backpicking”. A defender, or an offensive player for that matter, will legally block the path of an opponent delaying or stopping his progress.

Unless your chair skills are very good, you are a perfect target for a backpick and your team will be temporarily short a man for that possession. In wheelchair basketball we use a lot of screens both on and away from the ball, but screening is even more important in the wheelchair game.

To help explain this, let me take a step back and tell you about another rule unique to wheelchair basketball. It’s called the point system. Players who play this game usually have some form of physical disability. They may be single or double amputees or they may have suffered a spinal cord injury which has left them with some degree of immobility.

The most severely handicapped players basically have no feeling below their rib cage. They have less mobility and less stability. Just imagine sitting in a wheelchair leaning forward with your hands at your ankles. To get back up these guys will have to use only their arms and hands to push against their legs or chair to get back into a sitting position.

Or even better, try lying on the floor and try getting back into your chair using just the power of your arms and hands. These players are given a 1.0 or a 1.5 point classification. Less severely handicapped players are given 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0 or 4.5 point classifications. In some domestic leagues able bodied players are allowed to play and they are automatically given a 4.5 class.

Why is this classification important? Because in international competition (where able bodied players are still not allowed to play) a team may play with only 14 points on the floor at any time. So, for the coach, substituting can be a nightmare. Not only do you have to have and elementary math degree, but you have to figure out a lot of different possible lineups to be able to get the five players you want on the floor at any time. Often some of your best players are forced to sit and cheer because the numbers just don’t work out.

So, back to tactics and strategy. Given that you might use two 4.5’s, a 2.5, a 1.5 and a 1.0 (=14 points) on the floor, you want to design your defence and offence in a way that your team is more effective than your opponent. They might have a 4, two 3’s, a 2.5 and a 1.5. on the floor, so, what are your advantages and disadvantages? The higher classes (4’s) usually sit higher in wheelchairs (max. 21” off the floor).

Lower classes will sit lower and generally have a greater camber on their wheels for greater stability and ability to turn more easily. Defences usually focus their efforts on denying your high pointers good shooting opportunities, so your offensive strategy generally involves setting a series of carefully angled screens that will create openings for mismatches (e.g. 4 vs. 1) and create shot opportunities for your best shooters or to have open shots for those players whose defenders have left them to go to help another defender. Like our game, wheelchair basketball games can be very high scoring or more defensive in nature depending on the strategy employed.

These chairs are even more important to the wheelchair basketball player than the latest Nike model is to the able bodied player. Each wheelchair is specially made for the unique requirements of a given player. Game chairs can be Porsches and they can be Chevies, but the best chairs will cost over $5000 U.S. But, believe me, chairs are only one of the things different in this game.

Most of these players have to live in a chair. They have to dress, shower and get around in ways that we have never had to consider. They would be very angry if I started to whine about the tough conditions they face daily in a world made for able bodied people, so I won’t. But I will say that in the last six months I have seen wheelchair basketball players that are truly special. They train as hard as anyone I have ever seen (four hour practices are not uncommon), they compete ferociously and they play a tremendous brand of basketball.

Oh, who are those people I mentioned up front? Well, Pat and Joey are both Canadian and they are universally recognized as the best wheelchair basketball players on earth. They hold Olympic Gold Medals from Athens and Sydney as well as club and European championship rings from the professional club they play for in Germany. Danielle and Chantal are stars on the Canadian national team.

Chantal has played in the last six Olympics and Danielle is now playing in a men’s professional wheelchair basketball league in France. Lior is one of the best players in Europe and Jake is on the US National team. They both play professionally in Bayreuth, Germany. Rudi? He’s my boss. He’s a solid 1.5 player, he runs the Bayreuth RSV pro team and, to me, he is the heart and soul of what wheelchair basketball is all about.

Next time you get a chance, check out a game or a practice. Believe me, you will enjoy it and it will challenge all your thoughts about the game we love.

(We would like to thank the author, Bruce Enns who has graciously written this article for Planet Hoops. Bruce has been a Canadian university and European professional basketball coach for 46 years. This fall he has been introduced to the world of wheelchair basketball and the wonderful players devoted to the best game on wheels.)

Here is another great article by Bruce Enns

Just call me a Wheelie Wannabe

By Bruce Enns

“Oh, the supercilious doubters! They ever strive to clip the upward daring wings of the spirit”. – Helen Keller

I dont know what I expected, but when they said, its just basketball, complications began to set in. I’ve been coaching the game for close to 50 years so it shouldn’t really be much different. But it is. Someone once told me that to be born again, first you have to die. In some ways its true, but, let me not over dramatize the situation while I share some of my recent experiences in the modest world of wheelchair basketball.

I say modest not to imply meek or reticent because that would be so very wrong, but because the community of wheelies is still short of numbers and undervalued when it comes to recognition and appreciation.

A year and a half ago I got a request from Germany to return to Bayreuth to coach. Not the able bodied semi professional team I had coached three years earlier, but the wheelchair team. Many years ago Rick Hansen had asked me to help out with a clinic for players in chairs and I had balked. Probably out of fear.

I knew no more about the game when the phone rang this time than when Rick had called and, again, I cringed. How could I teach handicapped people how to play a game that demanded so much athleticism? (I didn’t even know that though they might have a physical disability, they never consider themselves handicapped).

After a series of calls and letters I agreed to go to Germany in the fall to help my old friends in whatever ways I could. But, first I had to gather information and gain some wheelchair knowledge so that I wouldn’t be a complete fool and leave my wheelie friends disappointed.

My first info seeking attempts on the net were fruitless until I came across Tim Frick. He is the Canadian National womens’ team coach and he works at Douglas College in Vancouver. My goodness, the man has won umpteen Paralympic and World championship gold medals. Coaches frequently muddle around in their own little worlds, but Tim is different. We clicked immediately and not only was he willing to help me learn about the wheelchair game, he wanted to share ideas about how to play basketball better.

Tim introduced me to players, coaches and administrators, all people involved with disabled sport , many spending much of their life in a chair. I was fascinated by the individuals and by the quality of life they were living. I listened and watched their stories in bits and pieces, and each time the story was unique.

As one German player enlightened me, “This is a foreign country, Bruce. We do things differently here”. Yes, in more ways than one. Back in Canada, Tim asked me to come out to help him with his team. One of the first ladies I met had been playing and winning for a long time. Her physical disabilities were quite severe and when I asked her about fear of further injury, she replied without hesitation, “Of course its dangerous and, yes I might get hurt seriously. But, you know, I really love this game and I fully intend to die on the court some day”. Thats not something I ever remember hearing on an NBA infomercial.

Wheelchair players really dont have enough good teachers committed to helping them improve, but helping Tim teach was humbling. When I asked at the first practice, “Where do you recruit your players?” Tim snapped, “Emergency wards”. Wow, I had to take a minute to think. There arent that many of them playing at Kits beach and, they don’t grow up with the game like most running game players.

Most of them, often in their teens, have suffered a serious accident or disease (motorcycles, cars and trains are major agents) and many of them have absolutely no background in basketball prior to their accident. Very few high school gyms have wheelchairs available in their equipment rooms and it’s rare when a Phys Ed program provides opportunities that encourage interest in disabled sport let alone helps teach and develop skills.

For years I have been heard screaming at my passers, “Keep two hands on the ball”, and at shooters, “Jump, use your legs”. Quickly, some of the complications in this game began to dawn on me. Of course, it makes sense, teaching shooting will have to change a bit (I still haven’t got it totally figured out) and, so will much of passing and catching because often players have to have at least one hand on a wheel to control the chair.

Footwork? There is none, but those skills are replaced by chair skills and thats like learning how to drive a NASCAR. Take a second to think about the young drivers that cut in and out of traffic at ridiculous speeds and really tick you off. Those are the guys you’d like to teach basketball chair skills. Stopping, starting, tilting (balancing on only one wheel for better position or height), backing up and changing speeds and direction are all essential to competing well.

There is also something the coaches call POP (position of power), a skill that as a defender you must learn to be able to position the wheels of the chair so you can best anticipate an opponents next movement without looking totally foolish as he blows by you. And, of course, getting to maximum speed to turn the corner on a defender takes time and practice. Some of the best players say it takes three to four years of committed work to really learn good chair skills.

There are also huge complications in understanding the tactics in getting teams organized in their play. In the running game we tend to focus on what’s happening around the ball and whats going on in preparation for a shot in front of the ball. Of course that’s essential in wheelchair ball too, but there is an additional factor that running game coaches and players and referees don’t have to worry about.

And that is what is going on BEHIND the ball. Tell me the last time you ever saw the camera in an NBA game focus not on Steve Nash with the ball or Kobe Bryant racing ahead to receive a pass, but on a defender behind the ball fighting to get back down the court while an offensive player is doing his best to block the path and delay a quick defensive transition. Chairs cannot move laterally and though there are many special players who beat their defenders one on one, believe me, its much tougher turning the corner on a defender in a chair than on foot .

The isolation plays which are so common in the NBA are almost impossible in the chair game. And so, every offence is a five player game where every players’ position and skills are critical. For those of us who love the composition of team play more than individual masterpieces, the wheelchair game is never boring.

Maybe the biggest difference in the chair game is the composition of the five man lineup. Think of it this way. If you were a high school coach getting your team ready for the championship game you would most likely play your best five players at any given time. C’mon, you would. The lineup might depend on size, speed, skills, recent performances, team chemistry and your opponent.

There is an additional factor in the chair game and it is dictated by the rulebook. Each player on your roster is assigned a point value based on his or her level of disability. Players with the most severe disabilities receive a 1.0 status all the way up to 4.5 for limited disability. The most a coach can put on the floor at any given time is 14 points! Thats right, you have to be a quick mathematician whenever you want to make a sub. It would be like the ref telling you, Im sorry coach, but if you insist on playing two grade 12’s right now, you have to have two grade 9’s on the floor .

Let me tell you a little about life on the road. More complications. Getting onto the airplane involves a bit more than we able bodied are used to. Some of our players can walk or use crutches, but most come and get around in chairs. Their day chairs (the chairs that we are used to seeing that they live in much of the day) are only half the story.

Every player also brings her/his game chair. These chairs are specially made for each individual and meet both their unique needs and rule book specifications. They require care and mechanical adjustments similar to your car and they often set you back well over $5000. Players will bring additional wheels, bolts, pads and equipment on every trip. It is virtually impossible to play in anyone elses chair if something goes wrong with yours so, repairs are a part of every game and practice.

Most airline people are quite considerate, but more time and effort is always needed. Carrying all your extra baggage as well as your collection of daily needs is very difficult for many players so, some players (not just the rookies) and coaches always do double duty – every time you go on a trip, to a game or to a practice or to a meeting, or to lunch .

Space is often at a premium. When Billy Johnson, our fantastic assistant coach, gave his scouting reports, we frequently had to squeeze 19 people into a tiny hotel room made for two. Not easy when chairs are involved and when personal mobility is a big issue.

Some of the players are absolutely astonishing. Domestically, able bodied players are allowed to play. In fact, we need more of them in our local leagues. Misty Thomas was a tremendous player for our national team a few years ago, and then a great coach at UBC. When her aching knees denied her the ability to continue running, she turned into a wheelie a couple of years ago and, with her determination, skill and knowledge of the game, she became a wonderful addition to our team this summer.

We want more Misty Thomases. Able bodied players are automatically given a 4.5 classification. However, internationally, each player must qualify for eligibility with a certified disability. Class 1.0s have no pelvic mobility, sit lower in the chair and usually will need their arms to help them regain lost balance caused by reaching or contact. If you think these class 1’s are weak links, just watch Jennifer Krempien or Jamie Borisoff on the Canadian national teams.

Goose (Jennifer) is one of the toughest players in the world and she can defend almost any player regardless of class. Jamie does everything well and is widely recognized as the best class 1 in the wheelchair game. Danielle Peers, one of our forwards, played in a men’s professional league in Paris this past year. She was the MVP of the recent world championships and she is a class 3.5. She rebounds, defends, scores with either hand, is a wonderful passer and nails her threes.

We are all so proud of Steve Nash, tremendous ballplayer and a fantastic role model for young Canadians everywhere. Steve is the most creative player the NBA has seen since Magic Johnson and he makes his teammates expand their games. But if you asked, “Who is the best scorer and one on one player?”, likely you’d say Kobe Bryant. If you asked, “Who is the best rebounder or defender?”, you might say Ben Wallace. No one player would qualify for all these accolades.

But wheelies all over the world are almost unanimous in saying that Pat Anderson, another Canadian, embodies everything great that Steve, Kobe and Ben stand for. He is flat out the best shooter, passer, rebounder, dribbler, defender and leader in the game of wheelchair basketball.

Every time I watch Pat play I see something new, something special, something that blows my mind. And yet, its a bit sad because Pat should be recognized as a Canadian sports icon right there with Steve Nash and Mike Weir and Wayne Gretzky. Really, he is that unique.

Good wheelchair games are really quite similar to good running games. The rules are same except for few minor alterations, and there are different styles of play just like in our stand up game. When we played the Aussies in the world championships in July, we pressed, tried to wear them out and get to their bench.

In the final against the Americans, we controlled the clock and made them face five defenders whenever possible. In the semi-final against the Germans, we mixed up our defences depending on who was on the floor and had to put on a furious press in the final minutes before winning in double overtime.

There is no question that shooting is much tougher in a chair and chair skills are more demanding than footwork, but if you have a chance to watch the Canadian national women’s or men’s teams play (both GOLD medal winners beating the USA teams at the recent world championships in Amsterdam), you will want to see more. Even better, become a wheelie. We need more players , coaches, referees and fans.

For more information on wheelchair basketball please check the following websites:

Sportaid has a great selection of wheelchairs and  wheelchair accessories.

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