Hoop dreams

Being confined to a wheelchair doesn't mean taking a court-side seat.

disabled b-ball 88 224 (photo credit: Megan Jacobs)
disabled b-ball 88 224
(photo credit: Megan Jacobs)
The offense dashes from one end of the court to the other as Israel hustles to regain control of the ball. Great Britain attempts a shot, which misses, but Britain's phenom Terry Bywater palms a rebound one-handed and, arm outstretched, holds the ball high above three Israeli defenders' reach. Bywater angles backward, spots the basket over the hands in his face and gently pops the ball through the net with a barely audible swish as he falls to the hardwood in a tangle of arms and clanging metal. And then, in the spirit of true athletes, players from both wheelchair basketball teams help Bywater disengage his wheels from another's chair and resume playing. It's a sport which attracts little attention, but ignites a passionate crowd and players who zip down the court with speed, accuracy and athleticism. And quietly, Israel's wheelchair basketball team climbs to the upper echelon, gathering international acclaim and television crews in its wake. This match - a friendly competition - marked the finale of a three-day training cooperative training camp, which began February 18. Though Britain ultimately won the game 81-73, both the training sessions and the game proved to be valuable and fun for the two nations, which had previously met face-to-face at the European Championship in August, when Israel qualified for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing after finishing fourth. Despite the closing achievement gap between the two teams, and the likeness that comes from participating in the same sport, in many ways Israel could not be more different from its competitors. While Britain, as with every other international wheelchair basketball team, culls its players from athletes who have become disabled due to illness, birth defects and occasional accidents, Israel must face the brutal reality of the army's influence in society. "Half our team players have military injuries, including [team captain] Rotem Phillips," power forward Allon Dor-onn, who lost a foot in a car-related incident at 15, tells The Jerusalem Post. The other half has had car or work-related injuries, another unfortunate but all too common facet of Israeli society. Rather than using basketball as gainful employment, the great majority of the team has found salvation in the sport's rehabilitative and therapeutic qualities. "You always have to find something fun, to keep you happy when something like this happens," explains Dor-onn. "It keeps you alive." Basketball is also the best sport to play "wheeled," because of its competitive element, similarity to the non-wheeled game and physicality. Many on the team had enjoyed the game prior to their injuries; Ariel Otolengi had even played semi-professionally and was on his way to playing for the national team before his military injury. THE ATHLETICISM basketball demands keeps these men strong, mentally and physically. Weighing in at 45 kilograms, the titanium wheelchairs designed specifically for the sport with wheels that angle out and lower backs and armrests than traditional chairs are not easy to maneuver. Players face a variety of challenges relating to movement in the chair. "Those with spinal-cord injuries sit lower, because they need more support," Dor-onn says. "Whereas taller guys or amputees sit taller because they have more muscles to use." To the casual observer, it would seem as though the players who sit more upright have the advantage, as they are closer to the net and have a longer reach. Dor-onn is quick to point out, however, that it all balances out and each type of player has his own advantages. "We may have more ab muscles and movement, but [those with spinal-cord injuries] are used to being in wheelchairs all the time," he says. For amputees like Dor-onn, who typically wear a prosthesis and walk, playing in a chair requires a practice all its own to build up the arm muscles and get used to operating with accuracy. Upper-body strength is of critical importance for a wheeled basketball player, not unlike traditional basketball players, but in much different ways. "Your hands are working twice as hard," Dor-onn says. They must shoot and dribble, steal and swat, in addition to powering the wheelchair. Shooting technique is also different for a seated player. "Push hard and quick, but shoot softly," Dor-onn says. Wheelchair basketball has provided access to a better quality of life for its players, as well as an entry to an international sports community that may not have been available otherwise. Dor-onn is currently on full basketball scholarship at the University of Wisconsin, and helped it win the college wheelchair basketball championship in 2007. Phillips is one of five team members currently playing abroad professionally, on one of the eight Italian league teams. Phillips, a power forward and center, says he fell in love with sport nine years ago, almost immediately following his military injury, though this is his first year playing professionally. He is one of a few hundred players in the world to play professional wheelchair basketball. "Sport is sport," Phillips says casually. "This is the best solution." He particularly likes assisting, a humble captain who prefers to see everyone involved in the game rather than strive solely for personal gain or attention. "My least favorite part is sitting," he admits. Sitting? But he's a wheelchair-bound player! "On the bench," he finishes with a grin. "Can't wait to get up again." For Phillips, coming back to Israel for the training session with Great Britain was important not only as a "first step before the Olympics," but also in spirit; he enjoyed meeting up with friends from the national team and playing together again. Head coach Arik Pinto credits this lack of unity and being able to practice together for longer than the three-day training camp as part of the reason Israel was unable to defeat Britain, in addition recognizing that Britain is the second best team in Europe and has strong, talented players, many of whom play professionally, including game MVP Bywater. He hopes that over the summer, the team will have the opportunity to work together four to five times per week before Beijing. Still, Pinto is optimistic about his team, which he coached to success at the European Championships. "We have such potential, such qualified players," Pinto proudly declares. Moreover, Pinto views Britain's visit as a remarkable achievement in itself, regardless of the loss. This was the first time that any national team from abroad had come here. "They're afraid," Pinto says knowingly. "But Great Britain came after the Euro Championship, after knowing we can win and play as equals. They enjoyed it, had fun, and when they go back they will tell others. Next time, many teams will want to come to Israel." The team finds value even in losing. "It's always great to play a team better than you," Dor-onn says. "You recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Being able to tape the game doesn't hurt, either." Israel will get a chance at a rematch with Great Britain in Beijing, when the two teams will compete in the same group.