By Jan Creaser
In a sport usually dominated by long-legged athletes who jog easily from one end of the court to the other, the addition of wheels adds a new dimension to the dynamics of basketball. Last weekend, athletes from across the country participated in the 1999 Canadian National Wheelchair Basketball Championships at the University of Calgary. The National Championships have been held for 31 years, but 1999 marks the 10th anniversary of the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League’s women’s division. With this in mind, I tracked down two U of C players to discover the nuances of wheelchair basketball and outline some of the challenges the women’s teams have met.
The rules of basketball are slightly modified to accommodate athletes who must also use their hands to manoeuvre their wheelchairs down the court.
“It’s called the three-push rule,” explained Michelle Stilwell of the Calgary Rocky Mountain Rollers, the team that took the women’s A division gold medal. “You’re allowed to touch your wheels twice with the ball in your lap, then you have to either dribble, pass or shoot.”
This explanation cleared up the only real difference I noticed between wheelchair basketball and the NBA: the fact that a player already in motion can catch the ball and carry it down the court without dribbling if they have enough momentum. A breakaway like this parallels Shaq legging it down the court while everyone else tries to catch up-only he doesn’t get to tuck the ball under his arm.
Stilwell, a fourth-year psychology major, also plays on the women’s national team, which will compete for a position at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.
“The Canadian women’s team has ranked first for the past eight years with a 340 record internationally,” she said.
Theresa Hacault, a second-year U of C student, plays for Calgary Lightning in the B division. Even though the team placed last, they were satisfied with their performance.
“We’ve only been together for a month and a half,” said Hacault. “We’re still getting used to each other, so this competition is a learning experience.”
It was definitely a positive experience for Hacault, who was named an all-star at the end of the tournament. This acknowledgement bodes well for her future in the sport.
“If I had to set a realistic goal, it would be to make the national team in three years,” she said.
Recruiting is sometimes difficult for the women’s teams and extra positions are made up of able-bodied players. So don’t be shocked if a chair tips over during play and the athlete stands up.
“Statistically speaking, there are simply more men in wheelchairs than women,” said Hacault. “And, overall, more men play sports, so we’re often short on players.”
Athletes are assigned a ranking on a scale of 0.54.5 depending on their level of disability. Able-bodied players rank 4.5 on the scale and teams are not allowed to exceed a certain number of points between the five players on the court. Women’s teams can’t exceed 19.5 points on the court, which prevents them from playing five able-bodied players at a time.
“People are worried about running over the purpose of the game,” said Hacault about the ranking system. “This way, everyone gets to play and the purpose of the league as a venue for disabled athletes is maintained.”