TOKYO – To make a living in wheelchair basketball, members of the US men’s Paralympic team subjected their passports to vigorous training.
Matt Scott, a five-time member of the US team, has played in Italy, Spain, Germany and Turkey. He will vouch for the intensity of the crowd in Turkey by recommending a YouTube video of a fan fight during a match in Istanbul. The police have come. They used tear gas.
Brian Bell – a father of five, ages 1 to 9 – travels abroad with his family for about eight months a year, then returns to Chicago to be closer to his wife’s family. Most recently, he joined US Paralympian quadruple Steve Serio and Michael Paye in the powerful RSV Lahn-Dill team in Wetzlar, Germany.
Some of their European competitors are surprised by the lack of a professional wheelchair league in the United States, the birthplace of the sport and the reigning Paralympic champion in both men and women.
“The whole world associates wheelchair basketball with America,” said Joe Bestwick, a member of the German Paralympic team who played for Lahn-Dill. “They just think it goes hand in hand, of course, the NBA being the big league that it is.”
Joshua Turek, 41, making his fourth Paralympic appearance for the United States, understands the limited sports palace of his home country. He is hardly fazed that he and his teammates had to move abroad to continue playing the game they love at the highest level.
“Unfortunately, no,” said Turek, who has played abroad for about 16 years. “The view of sport in the United States is very masculine. I think you see some of the struggles for the WNBA and most of women’s sports. And I think a lot of times adapted and disabled sports sort of fall into the same category. “
Many WNBA players go overseas during the off-season to boost their income and often get contracts worth significantly more than their income in the United States. planned to introduce one next year.
Some professional men’s teams in Europe have a woman on their roster, in an arrangement based on the disability classification system used in Paralympic sports. The basketball rating scale starts at one point for players with the most limited functional ability and goes up to 4.5 points; the total of a team’s five players on the field at any one time must not exceed 14.
In men’s professional leagues, 1.5 points are deducted from a woman’s ranking, allowing her team to build a slightly stronger cast around them than they could with a man ranked at the same level.
Rose Hollermann, 25, of the 3.5-point-ranked US women’s team, started playing for a Spanish team in the Canary Islands in 2019, shortly after graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington , which has one of the best wheelchair basketball programs.
She was thinking of playing it for a year in Las Palmas, living in an apartment paid for by the team, near the Atlantic Ocean. Then, she said, she would return home to “start a career and settle down.”
This plan did not last long. Fans hugged Hollermann chanting “Rosa Maria” or “Rosemary”. Her Spanish progressed to the point where she didn’t always rely on the translator in the group. And she saw the possibility of having a career in basketball.
“I realized this was something that I really enjoy,” Hollermann said, “and I don’t know when I’ll be ready to give it up.”
For the men at the Paralympic Games, playing professionally has become essential. The experience cannot be replicated, players say, even in a high-profile amateur organization like the upper division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, which includes the New York Rollin ‘Knicks. They would still need to work, which would leave them less time to play basketball.
So the Americans leave the house. According to several players, compensation varies considerably between countries and the caliber of players. But Europe’s top Paralympians could receive salaries ranging from 45,000 to 60,000 euros, or about 53,000 to 70,000 dollars, for about eight months of work, often with the team covering the cost of housing and perhaps even a car.
At the Paralympic Games, loyalties need to be redrawn, at least temporarily.
In Tokyo last week, the United States and Germany met in the first round, with Bestwick on one side and Paye, who was the best man at Bestwick’s wedding, on the other. They played together for Lahn-Dill under the guidance of Nicolai Zeltinger, who coaches the German Paralympic team.
“Probably half of their team right now, I’ve played with at some point in my career, ”said Paye, who married a German woman and has no plans to live in the United States again.
Scott delivered 10 assists in a tense 58-55 American victory, and during the final buzzer, Germany’s Andre Bienek called on him to give him a pat on the back. The two were teammates at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, another college with a renowned wheelchair basketball program.
“As a five-time Paralympian I know all of these guys,” Scott said. “Someone is on the pitch, I played against them. I know what they have for breakfast. I know who their cousins are.
He said he wondered if having so many Americans playing overseas had diminished the team’s advantages.
“You saw how strong this German national team was,” Scott said. “A good majority of our players have played there, and they are improving the game for other countries and that sort of thing sometimes takes away from ours.”
Turek sees the same changes and views them with an appreciation for the evolution of the game.
For years, he said, the most efficient wheelchair basketball lineup was the heaviest, with, say, two great players rated 4.5, then 3, then two 1. In the last one. decade, he said, the United States introduced a more balanced approach that produced fast play with an emphasis on outside shooting.
“We don’t play against these huge guys,” Turek said, “but we’re really, really good from one to five. And basically everyone in the world has now turned into our system.”
But can the United States ever be made into a home for professional wheelchair basketball?
Bestwick was unwilling to speculate on why the sport had not progressed further in the United States, as he did not perform regularly in the country. But he had a clear idea of what was needed to create a successful league.
“Germany considers wheelchair basketball to be a professional sport, although it is also a sport for the disabled. But disability is not the main goal, ”he said. “The main goal is that it’s aggressive, it’s fast, it’s dynamic, it’s so inclusive.”