The history books say...

that there were a lot of guys who returned from the Second World War pretty well paralyzed and confined to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. They were in the same bracket, had the same problems and frustrations, had the same unbridled and unchannelled energy. They had to find an outlet somewhere. Where better than in the red-blooded province of sports?
It started with such sports as ping-pong, catch and pool, then from bowling, swimming and volleyball to the more energetic water polo, softball, touch-football and basketball. While many other sports have been added since that time, it was basketball that within a few years far outshadowed the others in popularity.

Historical documents reveal that, in 1946, the California Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America played the first match of wheelchair basketball, two weeks prior to the New England Chapter. Thereafter, it spread across the nation to VA hospitals in Boston, Chicago, Memphis, Richmond and New York. Before long, the sport had spread across the border to Canada and across the ocean to England.

In Two Years, Six Teams

By 1948 there were six teams in the United States, all members of the PVA and all functioning from VA hospitals. That was the year the Birmingham, California team received a sponsored tour - by plane - to play paraplegic teams across the country. An immediate result of this first tour of the Birmingham Flying Wheels was the formation, in Kansas City, of the first wheelchair basketball team outside of a VA hospital. The first 'civilian' hometown team was named the Kansas City Wheelchair Bulldozers, later the Kansas City Rolling Pioneers.

The Flying Wheels of California won the first National PVA Championship. Their moniker became well known because the Wheels made 10 cross-country tours. These trips did much for the publicity and popularity of wheelchair basketball, and therefore, in many ways for paraplegics and other severely disabled persons.
The Second National PVA Championship was won by the Bronx Rollers of Bronx VA Hospital in 1949.

In 1950, because of the closeness of teams' records, the Helms Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, which had been awarding the annual National Trophy, could not make a decision. The third and last PVA Championship was won by the New England Clippers from Cushing VA Hospital in Boston. They were the first team to go through a regular season undefeated.

The NWBA Is Born

The PVA Tournament was loosely structured and open to only paraplegic or spinal cord injured veterans, and thus was slated to slide into history, but with the creation of the more inclusive National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) this did not occur.
The paraplegics felt at the time that competition in the open tournament was a little rugged, and in many cases too severe for many paraplegic players. Amputees, polios, and orthopedically-disabled players were thought to have many advantages over the paraplegic-advantages of balance, speed and the free use of arms at all times. Until later experience tended to dispel the idea, it was popularly thought that 'the paraplegic must always use one arm for balance and one arm for throwing,' and the inevitable consequence was that this 'minimized accuracy, control and speed-all important in affecting the overall ability of the team.'

But with a newer tournament opening a tougher field of competition, it wasn't long before the paraplegics wanted 'in' - and the PVA Tourney was a thing of the past. Its loss to the more highly competitive NWBA Tournament has been regretted by very few, if any. The psychology is simple...who would admit that the competition was too severe?

The Association Expands

It was not to be too long, 1948 to be exact, before the Kansas City team was joined by another hometown team, the New Jersey Wheelers; and then the first college team, the University of Illinois Gizz Kids.

In April of 1949, a group of University of Illinois students, working under the inspired and tireless efforts of Tim Nugent, Director of Rehabilitation, formed the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. That was the beginning of the sport as we know it today. The National Association, its 22 conferences and 165 teams are all directly related to the original plan made by the organizing group of disabled students under Tim's guidance. Tim continued to serve as Technical Advisor and Commissioner of the Association for 25 years, leading it through many stages of growth and development, until his retirement in 1973.

The Kansas City Pioneers were the first NWBA champions in 1949. The St. Louis Rams tied it up for the next three years. In 1953, the Illinois Gizz Kids - originators and perennial competitors - finally achieved the title of national champion. In seven of the next ten years, the title was claimed by the famed Flying Wheels, whose roster was studded with a bevy of All-Americans including Bill Johnson, Fritz Krauth, John Cheves, Jack Chase, Larry Eakes and Erle Gerard.
and they went on to say....

Detroit Sparks Win Four-Out-of-Six

A new power arose in 1967 in the form of the Detroit Sparks led by Bud Rumple, Denver Branum and Gary Odorowski, winning the NWBT crown in four of the next six years, and finishing second to the champion Illinois Gizz Kids in the intermediate years, 1969 and 1970. The Indianapolis Mustangs, behind the awesome strength of Tom Osburn, Curtis Bell, John Bevan, Bill Foust and the late Ed Sovern, dominated the championships the next three years, winning from 1973 - 1975. California made a brief rise to the top in 1976 when the Orange County Raiders were victorious. However, the coveted trophy returned to the Detroit Sparks in 1977 when they beat a young Los Angeles Stars team in overtime, and again in 1979 when they eked out a one-point victory over the Chicago Sidewinders. The perennially powerful Music City Wheelers nabbed the NWBT crown by defeating Sacramento 53-38 in 1978. The crown returned to the West Coast in 1980 as the Los Colina Condors flew past the Sidewinders 64-47 in Charlotte, NC. The Condors retained it in 1981 by outlasting the North Florida Renegades in Westland, Michigan, but lost it to the Westland Sparks the following year in Minneapolis.

In 1983, the Condors, as hosts of the 35th NWBT in Pomona, CA, turned back a game Westland troupe to regain the title. One year later in Kansas City, the Condors made it four championships in five years of Final Four competition with a 60-50 win over the Music City Panthers.

The 37th NWBT was held at the University of Kentucky where a new cast of finalists came together. The Condors failed to make it for the first time in seven years when they were eliminated by the Alberta Northern Lights in the Far Western Sectional. Alberta was the first Canadian team to qualify for a NWBT.

A newly organized Detroit team bearing the name of their sponsors, the NBA Pistons and led by former Westland Sparks star Darryl Waller and Toleda Silver Streak Kris Lenzo, outlasted the Springfield Spoke Jockeys 56-50 to claim the national title. A year later, with Waller back on the Sparks roster and Lenzo playing with Toledo, the Pistons were no more. The Casa Colina Condors returned to form in 1986 with a win over Toledo to take the 38th NWBT held in Chicago. A year later they fell to fourth as the Grand Rapids Pacers upset both the Dallas Mavericks and Toledo Silver Streaks to win their first national championship.

The Condors came back with a vengeance in the 1988 tournament in Kansas City to gain their 6th national championship in the ten years of their existence with a 70-53 win over the Music City Lightning. Music City, unwilling to suffer further ignominy, came back in full force in 1989 in Hartford, Connecticut to defeat both Casa Colina and a rejuvenated Detroit Sparks team to claim its first national championship since 1978.

Casa Colina, playing disciplined basketball and seeking its 7th national crown, won in 1990 with a 57-49 win over the Arkansas Rollin' Razorbacks in the 42nd NWBT played in Lexington, Kentucky. One year later, playing on their home court in Little Rock, the Razorbacks defeated the Music City Lightning 47-43 to claim their first national title.
Following Arkansas' triumphant climb to the NWBA summit in 1991, Casa Colina regained the championship in 1992. The next year, they succumbed to Arkansas (66-58), as Tim Kazee scored a game high 32 points and won the MVP trophy as well. Arkansas and Kazee (MVP) replicated their championship performances in 1994. In 1995, the Fresno Red Rollers, led by MVP Randy Snow and Jim Miller, defeated Music City 71-59.

The expanding number of conferences and teams necessitated the institution of a system of regional and sectional post-season tournaments in order to qualify teams for the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. In 1972 the top two teams in each of the four regions advanced to the NWBT, but in 1973 the structure was altered to provide for the emergence of four sectional representatives beyond the regional to vie for the national championship. Today's four-team National Tournament is truly a showcase event with the NWBA's top teams on display.

In 1995, NWBA delegates voted to adopt a two divisional structure expanding the National Tournament for men to eight teams, four from each division. In Division I, Arkansas returned to the winner's circle, defeating Fresno 43-42. Charlotte took the Division II title, defeating Richmond 66-58.
wheels around the world...

Nowadays, wheelchair basketball is an international sport. It started when the Montreal Wheelchair Wonders of the Canadian Paraplegic Association were invited to participate in the sixth NWBT in 1954. The international movement was given greater impetus the following year when the Eastern Conference champions, the Pan American Jets, journeyed to England to compete in the International Stoke Mandeville Games. That year, as in the following years, the U.S. wheelchair basketball team - as part of the larger contingent competing in all phases of wheelchair sports - won the international championship.

It was not until 1966 at Stoke Mandeville that another nation could wrest the crown away from the Americans. The Israeli team, profiting from the experience of playing against the United States year after year, defeated the Americans and a strong Argentine team to assume the mantle of international champion. They repeated as champions in each of the next four years until the United States regained the title in 1970.

In the following years, the Israelis claimed the championship three times - in 1971, 1975 and 1980. The U.S. team captured the prestigious 1972 Paralympic title in Heidelberg, Germany when a team selected by the NWBA up-ended Israel in a thrilling last-second championship victory.

The 1976 international crown was retained by the United States with a convincing win over Israel in the championship game of the Olympiad for the Disabled held in Toronto, Canada.
In 1980, the U.S.national team, which had been selected on the basis of a tryout held by the NWBA at Middle Tennessee State University, lost a squeaker to Holland, 63-60 in the semi-finals of the Arnhem Paralympics, and was relegated to playing for the bronze medal against France, winning handily 80-60.
The Paralympic year 1984 proved to be a frustrating year for the men's and women's teams, in large part because of the late shift of the competition venue from this country to England.
Many of the acknowledged top layers had to bow out, and the NWBA teams selected-though distinguished in all respects - could not match the strength of the well-established lineups of the foreign powers. The U.S. men's team finished fourth among 18 countries, while the women's team claimed the fifth position among six competing nations.
In 1987, the U.S. men's team was successful in winning the gold medal at the Stoke Mandeville Games.

U.S. fortunes continued to improve at the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Both the men's and women's teams captured the gold medals. The men did it with a convincing 74-63 victory over Holland, while the women's team won out over West Germany 38-31. The West Germans had not been beaten in international competition since 1975.
The IXth Paralympic Games held in Barcelona, Spain, will be remembered for the gold medal won by the U.S. men's team (39-36 over Holland) but subsequently withdrawn by the International Coordinating Committee two weeks later for a doping infraction by a U.S. player which was discovered in a urine test following the championship game.
The U.S. women's team took the silver medal when Canada, led by Chantal Benoit's 18 points, emerged victorious 35-26 in the championship game. The gold medal was Canada's first in Paralympic competition.

The 1996 Pralympic Games was held in Atlanta, Georgia following the Olympic Games. Eleven men's (Iraq failed to appear] and six women's teams competed for medals. An exciting team from Australia defeated the favored squads from the USA and Great Britain to win its first gold medal. The US men won a bronze as did the talented US women.
Gold Cup Tournament/World Championships

A newly emerging international event, the Gold Cup Championships, contested by the world's top men's teams and held every four years, has gained ascendancy as the dominant international competition outside of the Olympic-year contests. First staged in Bruges, Belgium, Israel claimed the first title in 1975. The U.S. team overcame an early loss to the Netherlands in the 1979 tournament to defeat the Dutch in the Championship game 60-49. The tournament, held in Tampa, was the first international wheelchair sports tournament ever held in the U.S.
The third Gold Cup competition was held in May 1983 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ten countries entered their strongest teams. The U.S. national team, perhaps the most powerful squad ever assembled at the time, went undefeated and established itself as world champion. The competitions were notable, because for the first time in international championship play, amputees and other non-spinal paralyzed athletes were allowed to participate. Up until that time, the international version of the sport had been restricted to spinal cord related disabilities.

The fourth Gold Cup Tournament (now called the World Championships) was held in April, 1986 in Melbourne, Australia. The American team continued to demonstrate mastery of the sport by defeating Canada in the title game 61-40.

The mastery was short-lived when France defeated the U.S. at the 5th Gold Cup World Championships in Bruges 1990. Four years later in Edmonton, Canada, the U.S. team recaptured the world championship. Coached brilliantly by the University of Illinois' Brad Hedrick, the U.S. defeated its five qualifying round opponents by an eye-popping average margin of victory of 29 points per game. Demonstrating excellent team balance, five U.S. players reached the coveted double-figure mark by defeating the much improved team from Great Britain 67-53.
Wheelchair basketball, which has spread to every continent, is now an integral part of all regular international wheelchair games: The Pan American Games, the Commonwealth Games, the European Games, the Far Eastern as well as the South Pacific Games.

Included on an ever-increasing scale are the women's competitions, whose endeavors and achievements over the past eight years have produced some truly outstanding teams - particularly from Israel, Argentina, and Germany.

Then women started playing...

According to NWBA historian Stan Labanowich, 'A new era in the history of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association began during the 1970s when the University of Illinois Ms. Kids were established as the first women's wheelchair basketball team in the United States. The Ms. Kids built their program from 1970-1974 by playing able-bodied opponents. On February 24, 1974, they competed in the nation's first wheelchair basketball game between two organized women's teams.'

In 1975, the Motor City Wheelers won the first national women's championship that was held in this team's home town of Detroit, Michigan. The national team from Canada captured the next two championships in 1976 and 1977.

During subsequent years, the women's division would experience the total dominance of three teams: the Southern California Sunrise, which won in 1980, 1981, 1984 and 1985 featuring players such as Olivia Reyes and Alma Torres; and the game's most dominant teams, the University of Illinois and the Courage Rolling Timberwolves, previously known as the Rolling Gophers.

The Timberwolves have won six championships through 1995. They are known for their intelligent and well-organized floor play and have produced outstanding individual players such as Susan Hagel, Mary Ann O'Neil and Deb Sunderman, one of the best to have played the women's game.
But the most dominant team has been the University of Illinois, which has won eight titles, five in succession form 1990 through 1994. Like the Gophers, the Fighting Illini have excelled through intelligent play and particularly through consistent picking, especially in the back court. A match between these two teams inevitably produces textbook basketball. Yet, the University of Illinois has not been lacking in great individual performers. Shooting guard Sharon McCarthy has demonstrated that by winning three MVP trophies. Her teammate Sharon Hedrick has won six, two more than the great Sunderman. In 1996, the Casa Colina Shooting Stars, led by McCarthy, won its first women's title.

In 1976, the United States entered a women's team in the Toronto Olympiad. This was the first international competition for the Title IX'ers since the formation of women's teams in the United States. The team went 0-for-6. Succeeding entries saw the Americans finish third in the 30th International Stoke Mandeville Games (1977) and third in the 6th Pan American Wheelchair Games in Rio de Janeiro in 1978. At the Arnhem Olympics the U.S. team finished third, winning its first medal in Paralympic competition. It was the only women's team competing which bettered its standing internationally since 1976, winning victories over Israel and Argentina.

In the 7th Pan Am Games in Halifax in 1982, the women won the gold medal by defeating a strong Canadian team 39-38 in the championship game. The women's sports movement in this country was gaining momentum and promised to keep our women athletes among the internationally elite in wheelchair basketball. Evidence of this was the team's gold medal victory in the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul.

The United States's involvement internationally continues to grow. A men's and a women's team selected by the NWBA committees were treated to a six-city 17 day tour of Japan by the Japan Sports Association for the Disabled (JAD) in August-September of 1981. Both teams went undefeated.

A men's team was selected to compete in tournaments played in Aalsmeer and Raalte, Holland. The Americans snapped up both tournament championships by defeating teams from Holland, Sweden, Israel and France. The national women's team traveled to France in May 1993, where they placed second to Holland in the First International Women's Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. Four other countries - France, Germany, Canada and Sweden - took parting this event.

The First Gold Cup World Championships for women were held in St. Etienne, France in July 1990, and won by the United States. The Americans defeated Germany 58-55 in what observers have termed a 'classic' game. A tall and powerful team from Canada won the Gold Cup in 1994, defeating the U.S. in the final game in Stoke Mandeville, Great Britain. Future World Cups are bound to give further impetus to the womens' sports movement, both here and around the world.


In 1974, the NWBA legislated to permit women to play on the formerly all-male teams.. Since then, a Women's Division has been created and six of the eleven womens' teams played a regular schedule of games in established NWBA conferences in 1990-91. The Central Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Conference was formed in 1970.
In 1977, the University of Illinois hosted the First Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament (NIWBT). The Southern Illinois University Squids nabbed the first title, while Wright State University (Ohio), University of Illinois, and Southwest State University (Minnesota) have held the honor since. In 1996, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater team captured its first collegiate championship.

In the fall of 1991, the Congress of USA Basketball voted to admit the NWBA as an active member, following eleven years as an Associate Member. Appointed to the Board of Directors was the NWBA Commissioner, Stan Labanowich. The action represented a significant advance in the integration of the sport into the national governing body.
1995 proved to be historic. Basketball legend Dave Kiley was elected Commissioner of the NWBA, narrowly defeating Stan Labanowich, a staunch champion of democratic principles who had led the organization for twenty-three years. Kiley is the first player to serve as Commissioner.

On the international front, the sport has organized as the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (1990). For seventeen years, it was known as the Basketball Section of the International Stoke Mandeville Federation.

The next milestone....wheelchair basketball in the regular Olympics.

Photo Credits
The photographs appearing in the History of the NWBA were taken by Delfina Colby, copyright by PVA Publications PN/Sports 'N Spokes, 2111 East Highland Avenue Suite 180, Phoenix, AZ 85016-4702.
This article is an adaptation of an article written by the late Harry A. Schweikert, Jr., which appeared originally in the May 1954 issue of Paraplegia News. It has appeared in updated form in almost all National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament programs since then, and represents the unofficial history of the game, authored in great part by Stan Labanowich with recent updates by 'Tip' Thiboutot.