Basketball players are known for their long legs and fast paces, but what happens when you don’t have the ability to use your legs? That’s where wheelchair basketball comes in.
World War II veterans first developed wheelchair basketball in 1946 and played in Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals in California and Massachusetts. After this, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) hosted six teams representing VA hospitals, which was followed by the formation of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA). From there, wheelchair basketball became the most popular sport for people with disabilities.
However, women could not play until the mid-1960s; NWBA delegates only received a proposal to create a Women’s Division in 1977. Six teams formed and competed in a national tournament at the University of Illinois after this proposal passed. The sport has since developed over time and includes both men’s and women’s teams.
Although athletes with spinal-cord injuries were the first players, anyone with amputations/limb loss, spinal cord injury/wheelchair-users, cerebral palsy/brain injury/stroke, and other orthopedic or locomotor disabilities can participate, according to Team USA Paralympics.
Some modifications between able-bodied and paralympic basketball exist: five players from each team can play, but the total classification points cannot exceed 14; the wheelchair is considered part of the player when referees call fouls; players take a push or two with the ball in their lap or hand and dribble the ball; and players receive travel violations if they push more than twice without dribbling. However, everything else – including the basket height, regulation ball, and free-throw line – all remain the same.
The NWBA includes five divisions: junior, college, division III, women’s, and championship. Athletes can use a specialized sports chair, a lighter wheelchair with an angle that facilitates a tight-turning radius and wheels with greater camber.
Chicago teen Ixhelt Gonzalez recently received an invitation to try out for one of 12 spots on the U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team as an eighth grader, which makes her the youngest girl invited this year. She first became interested in the sport after her brother, who has cerebral palsy, played the game. Gonzalez thoroughly enjoys the sport and looks forward to this opportunity.
“I feel freedom. It’s like I can do whatever on the court,” Gonzalez said.
Connecticut resident and Ryan Martin Foundation founder Ryan Martin was born with Spina Bifida and had both legs amputated at just two years old. He first joined a wheelchair basketball team at 12 years old, played college ball, and eventually competed professionally. Martin currently competes with the New York Rolling Knicks, but he speaks at schools and business events on the side. His foundation hosts wheelchair basketball youth camps, one-on-one mentoring, and has a junior program.
Rochelle and Landon Benton both have amputated legs and enjoy playing the sport together as the only parent-child duo on the Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets team in North Carolina. Some kids may feel embarrassed playing sports with their parents, yet basketball bonds these two together.
“The old saying is you love all your kids equally, and I do believe that’s true,” said the Rollin’ Hornets coach Mike Godsey. “But there’s a bond that Rochelle and Landon have that parallels the relationship that our team members have with each other. It’s just this unwritten acceptance.”
The Rebound documentary tells the story of the Miami Heat Wheels team from Florida, which pushed for success amid defeat. The film’s directors follow three athletes who balance athletic and personal lives and give a closer look at life with a disability.
Many sports fans may not know about wheelchair basketball unless they know someone participating in the sport. However, it’s a great sport that provides opportunities for players who are not able-bodied. That’s something even those who do not live with disabilities can enjoy.
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