Wheelchair basketball: 'It's by far the most fun you can have on wheels'


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Which way is he going to go this time? I look left, 15-year-old Jim Palmer goes right and by the time I've spun around in my borrowed £3,000 sports wheelchair he's scoring an easy lay-up.

Welcome to the world of wheelchair basketball. I once spent a day driving classic Ferraris and Formula Ford racing cars – they have nothing on this. Despite ending the session panting with exhaustion after trying (and largely failing) to keep up with my young opponent, I can honestly say that this is by far the most fun you can have on wheels.

It should be said that Jim – who could easily be a future face of the sport – is already an international at under-21 level. He is potentially a prospect for Rio 2016 and if not, certainly the next Paralympics, wherever that may be.

I've met him and coach Roy Carter at the Mile End Leisure Centre, within spitting distance of the Olympic Park, where the London Titans wheelchair basketball club train and play.

Unlike, say, murderball, which was rechristened wheelchair rugby even though its rules bear little relation to the able bodied counterpart, there's not much that anyone who has followed the NBA in America will find unusual in wheelchair basketball.

The game is played on the same sort of court, the baskets are the same height, the scoring is identical, so are the timings. The foul rules are a little different but that's about it. Even then, the philosophy behind those rules is similar – wheelchair basketball is officially non-contact. In reality, your chair's going to get bumped and clattered into. Quite a bit.

What is unique is the disability points classification system which demands that the scores for the five players on court at any one time add up to no more than 14. An able bodied player (at some clubs there are a few although they can't compete internationally) is classed as a five and a player's points reduce as his or her impairments increase. Jim, who is paralysed below the chest, gets a one, for example. That makes him an even more useful addition to any team given his amazing skill level.

Bob, Jim's Dad, is a club level classifier (and the club mechanic) and there is some debate about where I should sit on the scale before he settles on three points. I get a half a point for my right foot, which is paralysed and drops dead when I'm not using a caliper. My surgically repaired shoulder gets me another: It's just about functional for mundane tasks but it's not long before I realise pain and stiffness is going to rule out catching or shooting above my head with it.

When it comes to taking free throws – probably the weakest part of my game – I lean back in the chair and hurl one handed. The fact that I can hardly bend (I use a special piece of equipment to help me get socks on) takes another point off. The classification is not strictly medical, it's functional, based on how you perform in a game situation. I'm perhaps a three and a half really.

As I continue to recover from the road accident that got me here, that may go up: legs, even weak, nerve-damaged ones like mine, help you balance in the chair.

Those chairs are a dream. Even though my pace is like a proverbial tortoise matched against a couple of cheetahs when compared with Jim and Roy, using one is a world away from the clunky NHS wheelchair I have at home.

And by the end of the evening I even manage to put Jim off a shot or two. A couple of times. Well, maybe once.

I know I've been through a workout when the pain sets in a couple of hours later. It isn't easy to sleep, although that could be due to adrenaline released by the sheer joy of playing. The session has worked out pretty much every muscle, including several which I didn't realise were being worked.

I'd like to give it another shot. But I'd also like to watch it again too and I've talked to several people who feel the same way. They were simply gushing about Great Britain's match against Germany, a thriller which our rivals only won in extra-time (and doesn't that feel familiar).

Sadly at the end of the week wheelchair basketball could disappear from our screens for the next four years.

In a multichannel world where you can even follow American Major League Lacrosse, that's sad. When we have taxpayer-funded public service broadcasters like the BBC, it's almost criminal. Maybe Channel 4, which has been showing the way this week, can keep the flame that's been lit within me and so many others this week from being extinguished?