Wheelchair Basketball: How It Began and What Lies Ahead

Editor’s Note: Wheel:Life sports writer John E. Phillips sat down with Sherrice Fox from the National Wheelchair Basketball Association to learn more about the dynamics of this popular sport and what lies ahead for the fans and players.

Wheelchair Basketball – Once Only for World War II Veterans – Today Found Most Everywhere

“In 2013, I saw Brian Bell, who was playing for the RHI Pacers at that time, make a break down the basketball court,” Sherrice Fox, program director for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), says. “He was hit and knocked over a player on the opposing team, but he continued to drive for the basket. As he got close to the basket, another player on the opposing team fouled him by tipping over Bell’s wheelchair. As Bell was falling to the ground, he started spinning. In the middle of that wreck, he still had enough control to shoot the ball and make a layup shot. After the shot, he went to the foul line and took another shot.”

See this play below:

What made this play so spectacular and memorable? All the elements of wheelchair basketball and the athleticism of Brian Bell had to come together for Bell to be able to control the basketball and his wheelchair, as he raced down the court. He had to control his body at the same time. If that wasn’t enough, he had to be aware of the position of the opposing team’s players as well as the position of his teammates on the court.

As he moved from the center line toward the basket, another player in a wheelchair tried to block his attack. With the force of his body weight and the chair, Bell was able to tip that player over and continue to drive toward the basket. Then he was fouled by another player, which caused his wheelchair to tip over. Before Bell hit the floor spinning, he had enough presence of mind and superb athletic skills to make the shot before he fell over on the floor.

Often, we don’t realize how skilled and talented wheelchair basketball players are.

When Fox told me this story, my first thought was of what happens to the player being tipped over when a player’s wheelchair crashes into another wheelchair and one or more of the players gets knocked to the floor? “Righting yourself and your chair quickly and efficiently is almost as important as scoring a goal,” Fox explains. “Often in a game, several players will get tipped over, but these athletes practice how to right themselves quickly to return to the game.

The players are strapped into their chairs, according to the types of disability they have. Unless a player is tipped over when he or she is in the key – the circle surrounding the free throw line and lane – play doesn’t stop. If you get knocked over in the back court, play continues until the ball is blown dead, or your team gets the ball and starts coming back down the court. Rarely, is a game stopped, when a player’s chair tips over.”

Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  12

Wheel chair basketball players have to dribble the ball for every two pushes of their wheelchair. If your chair goes out of bounds, then you’re out of bounds. Charging and blocking are still part of the game. Most of the rest of the rules of basketball apply to wheelchair basketball.Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  - 1

“One of the most memorable wheelchair basketball teams of all times was the Dallas Mavericks,” Fox reports. “This team won four National Wheelchair Basketball Championships back to back – from 2009 to 2013. Watching this team play, I saw some of the most amazing wheelchair basketball I’ve ever seen played. They had some of the greatest athletes on their team that our sport ever has seen. Jason Nelms, who was an athlete from the Columbian Pan American team, played for them and also played as a U.S. Paralympic athlete.

Jermell Pennie, who is currently a U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Basketball National Team athlete, was also a member of the Mavericks. Also on the Mavericks team were Bobbie Nickleberry, who was always invited to the National Team trials, and Danny Filk, who had played on some National Teams. So, this team was really stocked with some of the best wheelchair athletes in the nation.”

When and From Where Did Wheelchair Basketball Originate:

Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future   - 3

The sport of wheelchair basketball was founded in 1948 after World War II to provide a recreational activity for veterans of the war.

Primarily, it was created as a recreational activity for veterans in hospitals to enjoy while going through rehabilitation. The founder of wheelchair basketball was Dr. Tim Nugent, a participant in the D Day invasion during World War II. If you saw the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” Dr. Nugent and his brother were in that battle. When Dr. Nugent’s brother came back from the war, he was in a wheelchair.

Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  - 4

Dr. Nugent and his brother went down to the basketball court and started shooting baskets. As more vets saw the Nugent brothers shooting basketball, they wanted to get involved too. So, the Nugents came up with the idea of playing basketball in wheelchairs. Then Dr, Nugent founded the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA). At first, the NWBA was only open to World War II veterans.

NWBA Program Director Sherrice Fox is totally involved in this sport of wheelchair basketball. According to Fox, “When I was in high school and college, I loved to play soccer and played some basketball. I earned an undergraduate degree in kinesiology with a concentration in sports management. Next, I got a masters degree in sport and exercise science with an emphasis in sports administration. Although I had no prior knowledge of wheelchair basketball, I started working with the NWBA as an intern in 2008, where besides learning the sport of wheelchair basketball, I developed a great respect for this sport and the athletes who play it. After I couldn’t find an internship in soccer, the NWBA called me, offered to pay me and provided housing.

I worked with some of the Paralympic teams and have been in this position for the last 7 years.” After talking with Sherrice Fox, everyone realizes that her role as program director for this national organization is far more than a job. She has a passion for the sport and for the athletes who play the sport of wheelchair basketball on every level.

Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  8Wheelchair Basketball Is for Everyone

“We have over 218 teams registered at the NWBA, but many more teams compete in wheelchair basketball that aren’t a part of the NWBA,” Sherrice Fox says. “There is a big division of military wheelchair basketball teams, and we don’t keep track of all those teams. Every year at the Wounded Warrior competitions, just about every branch of the military service enters teams for their branch of service in the competitions. Also, there’s a large group of recreational wheelchair basketball teams that don’t have competition as the main theme of their programs. We don’t keep an account of quite a few newly-formed teams.”

Fox explains that the NWBA’s leagues are divided into the following divisions, primarily by age. “We have a Junior Prep Division for our 8 to 12 year old youngsters. We also have Junior 10’ Division for youngsters, primarily made up of youngsters 13 to 18 years old. The participants in this division can be as old as 21, as long as they’re enrolled in an accredited high school.”

Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  6

The NWBA also offers a Women’s Division for adult women 18 years old and older and sometimes junior women (young ladies 18 or less). In this division, junior players can play as adults, if there is no junior team in their area. Division III is primarily the adult recreation division and is coed for individuals 18 years old and older. However, the NWBA also allows junior players 18 years old and younger to play there, if there’s no junior team in the region.

The Championship Division is the competitive adult division that’s coed. Juniors are also allowed to play in this Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  7division, depending on their skills and/or their locations. For instance, if there’s a championship team 3 miles from a junior’s home and the Junior 10’ Division team is 50 miles away, then these younger players usually will play on the adult championship team, regardless of their skill levels. Some teams in this division have tryouts.

The Dallas Mavericks team, which is highly competitive, holds tryouts, but there’s a Division III team in their area for players who don’t make the Mavericks team. Too, the NWBA offers to athletes enrolled in a college the chance to participate in an Intercollegiate Men’s Division and an Intercollegiate Women’s Division.

As Fox emphasizes, “Anyone from age 8 and up can join and participate in the NWBA. If a 6 year old child wants to play on a team, he/she still can join and practice with one of our Junior Prep Division teams, but they can’t actually play in a game until they’re 8 years old.

The national teams that compete in the Paralympic Games are made up of athletes from this country and other countries. “Every 3 or 4 years, our coaches for the U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Basketball National Team and the U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball National Team have open tryouts,” Fox explains.

“Athletes who would like to compete on either our Men’s or our Women’s National Teams can pay to try out. The coaches watch them play and rank them. Then they try out for the National Team. The National Team tryout took place in January, 2015, for both the men and women’s teams. The top 30 athletes who’ve attended the tryouts are then invited to try out for the National Team. The top 18 of the top 30 compete for a couple more months. Then, the best 12 are selected to compete in international competitions.”

Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  10

In May, the National Team will compete in the Parapan Am Games. Depending on where competitions are held, the National Team also may compete in events in Europe, Australia and Canada. The NWBA sends the National Team to as many competitions as possible. According to Fox, “We’re only limited by the amount of money we can raise to send our National Team to these events. The athletes who qualify get to compete in the Paralympics, which takes place every 4 years. I don’t think there’s been a time when the USA team hasn’t qualified to participate in the Paralympic Games.

The IWBF (International Wheelchair Basketball Federation) World Wheelchair Basketball Championship takes place every 4 years also, and our National Team competes in the World Championship. The last World Championships were in 2014, and our Men’s National Team won the silver medal. In the World Championships in 2010, they won the bronze medal. In 2010, our Women’s National Team took a gold medal. In the Paralympics in 2012, our women’s team took fourth place. In 2008, our women’s team won the Paralympic gold medal. In the 2004 Paralympic Games, the men took a bronze medal, and they took fourth place in the 2008 games.

“Any company, or individual or organization who would like to help support our United States National Wheelchair Basketball Teams can contact Dan Humphries or our Executive Director Randy Schubert by visiting our webpage at www.nwba.org or calling 719-266-4082.”

Wheelchair Basketball Goes Global and Professional

Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  5

Sherrice Fox, program director for the NWBA, says, “I know that Turkey, Germany, Italy and Australia have wheelchair basketball leagues. I don’t know how many teams each of these countries have in their leagues. I’m sure many more countries than the ones I’ve listed offer wheelchair basketball leagues also. I know about these leagues in these countries, because many of our National Team players get contracts to play in leagues in these other countries.”

Wheelchair Basketball – How It Started and What’s the Sport’s Future  11One of the differences in wheelchair basketball in the U.S. and some of the other countries is that in some countries, U.S. athletes who play for those teams have contracts and get paid to play. So, there’s a good chance for a really good, competitive wheelchair basketball player to play professionally and earn income in other countries.

“For instance, Matt Scott, who is on our U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Basketball National Team, plays in Turkey,” Fox explains. “He gets paid as well and is provided with an apartment and transportation. Some of our athletes are well taken care of when they go overseas to play.”

Although Fox couldn’t give us specifics on how much compensation wheelchair athletes can make for playing for wheelchair basketball teams in other countries, she mentioned that she had heard rumors of athletes being paid for $30,000 to $80,000 per year, plus, living quarters and transportation, depending on the athlete’s skill and the team’s desire to have that athlete play for them. Some players are only offered food, a place to live and transportation. Some of the athletes have agents who negotiate contracts for them with teams from overseas. So, there is the opportunity for a professional career in wheelchair basketball, depending on their skill levels, if they’ve played internationally, and if they have gained reputations as being outstanding players, just like there are opportunities for other professional athletes.

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When Wheel:Life asked Fox about the future of wheelchair basketball, she explained, “Every year more and more people learn about the sport of wheelchair basketball. As soon as they get injured, more people are given information about wheelchair basketball as well as other wheelchair sports. Most physical therapists, occupational therapists and other clinicians are well aware of our sport, and we’re seeing the number of people participating on all levels continuing to increase. Many rehab facilities all over the nation have gyms or have access to gyms where individuals can participate in wheelchair basketball.

NWBA 4.6.14 (Tarwheels vs. Wolfpack)

We partner with Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama, a great example of how a hospital and a rehab center with a tremendous number of recreational programs – including wheelchair basketball – have recognized the benefits that patients get from participating in our sport. Lakeshore also encourages the families to participate with their patients. We’re seeing more and more rehabilitation centers creating programs like we’ve seen at Lakeshore.

Wheelchair basketball is becoming, if it isn’t already, one of the most popular of all the adaptive sports in the nation.

We really feel that the sport of wheelchair basketball will continue to evolve and grow. The opportunities for athletes – both amateur and professional – will continue to grow. So, we see a very bright future for our sport.”

Get Involved with a Local Team

To learn more about wheelchair basketball, to find the location of teams near you, to keep up with the athletes and the NWBA, and to learn what opportunities you may have to participate in this great sport, go to www.nwba.org.

Be sure to click on the “Locate a Team” tab at the top of the page to find teams that are closest to where you live. If you can’t find a team from the NWBA website, you can call 719-266-4082 and talk to anyone there to find a team in your area.



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