No matter your age, learn how to start playing wheelchair basketball, from equipment to fundamentals to finding a team.
When Jeff Jones teaches veterans and young athletes alike about wheelchair basketball, he tells them they’ll need to develop two main skills — chair mobility and shooting ability. The National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s (NWBA’s) associate director of sports and veteran initiatives and a youth wheelchair basketball coach himself, Jones wants beginning wheelchair basketball players to know the sport can be intimidating at first.
Learning how to move quickly up and down the court while trying to hold or dribble the basketball comes first. Players can roll their wheelchair by at most two pushes and then must dribble before moving again. If they go more than two pushes without bouncing it, traveling is called and the opposing team gets the ball.
Once that skill is developed, players then have to develop the basics of catching, passing and shooting and figure out how to maneuver their wheelchair in traffic. All that can seem exhausting.
“It’s a little bit more difficult than ambulatory basketball because you have to worry about propelling your wheelchair with both hands and also dribbling the basketball or handing the basketball,” says Jones, who coached the Atlanta Junior Wheelchair Hawks prep team for six years before moving to the NWBA national office in Colorado this past April. “For new players, that’s the challenge in terms of catching and passing and dribbling the ball while you have to move your wheelchair at the same time.”
Coaching children is a little different than coaching adults, though. Jones’ expertise comes at the junior prep division. He has prep players shoot at an 8. foot basket instead of a 10-foot varsity basket.
With younger children, Jones suggests bringing in a smaller basket such as a smaller, portable basket which adjusts from 5 feet to 7 feet. Then, as they develop the skill and strength to shoot a higher shot, the basket can be moved up.
“They have that initial success or they have that interest of returning because they’re having success versus always shooting at a basket that they’re not getting anywhere close to the basket at. That gets a little discouraging,” Jones says. “So we try to eliminate that by having a portable basket that [gives them] an opportunity for them to make a basket.”
For athletes looking to join a team, the NWBA has a combined 120 teams between the championship division and division III, along about 75 combined junior division (varsity and prep) teams, 11 intercollegiate teams and nine women’s teams. Thirty-eight states have squads.
As for teams, five players are allowed on the court at a time. Players are classified throughout eight classes — 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0 and 4.5 — depending on their level of function. The higher the player’s classification on the court, the greater the player’s functional ability. NWBA teams are allowed to play a minimum of 15 points on the floor at any given time.
Jones says the NWBA hopes to have a find-a-team application this month on its website where visitors can type in their zip code and the program can find the closest NWBA team to their location. Jones also encourages any wheelchair basketball player at the varsity level or higher to invest in a sports chair or at least look into a loaner program.
“They’re lighter and more mobile,” he says.
Finding the Right Form
Michael Collins used to play able-bodied basketball, shooting hoops at the high-school level and competing in military leagues.
Then, in October of 2013, a cancerous tumor forced the Army veteran to have his right leg amputated above the knee.
After chemotherapy, his physical therapist told him he could still play the sport, but through a wheelchair basketball program at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. It was a significant and difficult adjustment when the 28-year-old Collins first returned to the court.
“The hardest thing for me was the shot adjustment I would say by far,” says Collins, who served 11 years in the Army before retiring this year. “Once I sat down with the coach for the team at the physical therapy place I go, he used to always tell me, ‘Shoot like a man, shoot like a man.’ You get the airballs going on when you first start playing. That was the biggest thing — adjusting my shot to be able to make it go in the hoop.”
So how did he fix that? Collins spent hours inside the gym shooting from different distances, starting close to the basket and then moving further and further away. He attended camps, such as the University of Texas-Arlington Veterans Wheelchair Basketball Camp. He even joined the Center for the Intrepid team and a local National Wheelchair Basketball Association squad, the San Antonio Spurs, which let him compete against other wheelchair athletes and talk to them about their struggles and successes.
“The thing about wheelchair basketball that I like is that no matter what your disability, no matter what your injury, no matter how it was that you ended up in the wheelchair, once you get in the chair and you start playing everybody’s even keel, so to speak, it’s on the same level. And that was one of the things that kind of helped me,” Collins says. “It made me feel I was back being able to play like when I could play stand-up ball and things like that. It was kind of like a therapy almost for me.”
Wheelchair basketball was therapy for Nakia Merritte, too. It gave the active duty Army member his competitiveness back.
Merritte, 40, sustained a left foot injury and a regenerated disc in his lower back after he was hit with an integrated access device (IAD) in 2005. Five years later he tried the sport out at the Brooke Army Medical Center Warrior Transition Battalion adaptive sports program in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. What he didn’t understand was how to dribble. In wheelchair basketball, you have to learn how to push your wheelchair and bounce the basketball at the same time or after a push or two.
“Dribbling was the hardest at first. And now learning how to maneuver your chair, position your chair, learning how to get your chair so you can beat your opponent to the next position, keep your opponent out of the paint, keep your opponent from scoring [is],” Merritte says. “The main thing is just learning the chair position, how to move your chair the best way to have your chair to have a better position than your competitor.”
Hyatt Keeps Off The Couch
Being stuck on the couch wasn’t how John Hyatt wanted to spend another snowy West Virginia winter.
At 53 years old and a paraplegic, the Navy veteran needed to stay active and keep his wheels moving.
So what a coincidence when the Beckley Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Beckley, W.Va., recreation department asked him if he’d want to try out a new 3-on-3 wheelchair basketball league last winter put on by the Charleston Area Medical Center.
After only a few weeks, he was hooked.
“It’s the camaraderie of it, being able to hang out with people like myself instead of being the only one in my county getting out. If you’re the only one getting out and you can’t find nobody to play with, play ball, right?” says Hyatt, who served in the Navy from 1980–84 as a jet fueler and sustained a T-11/12 spinal-cord injury from a hit-and-run on July 1, 1988. “We’ve got to play with people like we are.”
Hyatt was one of a handful of individuals from the state who competed in the seven-week winter wheelchair basketball league, co-sponsored by Charleston Parks and Recreation, at a Charleston community center.
But this first-timer admits wheelchair basketball is way tougher than it looks.
When he first started, he was hoping maybe they’d lower the hoops by 2 feet. Not for his age group.
Hyatt couldn’t shoot the ball at a high enough arc to hit the basket and he admits he couldn’t make a free throw.
Still, though, he kept coming to the league and kept playing. The more he came, the more he learned — including that he shoots better with one hand than two.
Since Hyatt’s rotator cuffs are so shot and he can’t push off his chest, he started shooting one-handed. He balances the ball in his left hand and shoots with his right.
“I found out this is the way, so I’ll get nothing but better now,” he says.
Hyatt liked wheelchair basketball so much he even competed in it at the last two National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
“Last year [in Philadelphia], I was a screw-up,” Hyatt says. “I got my time. I’m glad we got to play 10 minutes. [I] had barely played basketball before. I was a baby, still am.”
But at this June’s NVWG in Dallas, Hyatt acknowledged his game has improved.
“I’m doing better on my layups. My layups are good,” he says. “I’m getting better.”
It’s all about baby steps — and Hyatt continues to make them. He’s hoping to play in another 3-on-3 wheelchair basketball league this fall.
“Basketball it’s, man, it’s the bomb … You probably feel it, everybody gets close. It’s like a group,” Hyatt says. “We all get tight, really cool.”
National Wheelchair Basketball Division
13 years old and under as of Oct. 1
21 years old and under and still enrolled in high school
Players are classified throughout eight classes — 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0 and 4.5 — depending on their function. The higher the player’s classification on the court the greater the player’s functional ability. National Wheelchair Basketball Association teams are allowed to play a minimum of 15 points at any given time amongst their five players on the court.
Source: National Wheelchair Basketball Association, nwba.com