When Passion and Rhythm Meet: The Action-Packed Sport of Wheelchair Basketball

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Jack Brown was only 18 when a car accident severed his spine.

Michael Smith, 48, suffered extensive spinal cord damage in a surfing accident in 2015.

Cooper Franklin was born with cerebral palsy and a learning disability, while Rawiri Tristram-Brown was born with spina bifida.

But all four have more than one thing in common: they excel at basketball.

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All abilities make up the Manawatū Wheelies basketball team, a place where they leave the handicap at the door and take control of the court.

The game is a crazy smash of fun requiring agility, strength and strategy.

“Sometimes I think it’s like drumming because you have so much to do with your hands…trying to maneuver yourself and the wheelchairs, bouncing the ball, shooting and passing,” Smith (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tuhoe) said.

In a world where automatic doors have sensors at the wrong height, rain wreaks havoc on the maneuverability of wheelchairs and crowds can render them invisible and often trapped, in the field the chair is king.

Derek Donker tries to keep the ball away from Jack Brown.

WARWICK SMITH / Stuff

Derek Donker tries to keep the ball away from Jack Brown.

“If you’ve been in a wheelchair for most of your life or even a few years, you have a big advantage over everyone else.”

Smith was an avid athlete before his surfing accident and struggled to adapt to the missing sport.

“In the beginning, when you have the accident, it’s like your whole world suddenly changes.”

Joining the Wheelies reignited his sportsmanship, bringing back some of the things he loved.

“Now I found that same passion, that same desire to win games and to be competitive and it gave me life again.”

The Tuataras take on the Giants in the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Palmerston North.

WARWICK SMITH / Stuff

The Tuataras take on the Giants in the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Palmerston North.

Brown, 25, moved to Manawatū before Christmas after living in Taranaki for nearly a decade. He joined the Wheelies three months ago.

Brown played rugby and was an avid cyclist growing up, but that changed after the car accident just after his 18th birthday.

He discovered basketball when he was “new enough to be in a chair”.

“And since then, I love it. I loved the high intensity, the speed of it, the crash.

Brown, who described his style as “aggressive and committed”, was keen to pass on his skills to the team.

Being part of Manawatū Wheelies helped Cooper Franklin express his love of the sport.

WARWICK SMITH / Stuff

Being part of Manawatū Wheelies helped Cooper Franklin express his love of the sport.

“I’m going to be aggressive or play harder against people who I know can defend against this. I will play according to their abilities.

“So if I think they are capable of doing something, I will force them to do it.”

The only thing stronger than the equipment needed to play – wheelchairs specially designed for the sport – was friendship and a sense of community.

“The community here is very passionate about the sport, passionate about growing it…it’s an amazing community to be involved in,” Brown said.

Team members range from grandparents to a 7 year old.

Glenn McDonald, left, takes on Kauri Murray in the first-ever National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Palmerston North.

WARWICK SMITH / Stuff

Glenn McDonald, left, takes on Kauri Murray in the first-ever National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Palmerston North.

Cooper Franklin, 14, has been in the sport for two years and is often joined by his mother Wendy Bismark.

Cooper plays a variety of sports each week through Parafed Manawatū, the group overseeing the Manawatū Wheelies.

Parafed promotes and facilitates sporting opportunities for people with physical or visual impairments.

Bismark said that Cooper was “incredibly active in sports…he’s crazy about sports”.

But Cooper had limited means to exercise before discovering Parafed.

Sports in elementary school did well, but things got more competitive in middle school and high school and “his world closed in.”

“Now he’s 100% in his element,” Bismark said.

“It’s amazing for him because he can participate in a sport to the best of his ability at the same level as other kids.”

Rawiri Tristram-Brown, 13, was the one to watch according to team members, including his grandfather Roy Freegard.

Rawiri Tristram-Brown, 13, hopes to one day play wheelchair basketball professionally.

WARWICK SMITH / Stuff

Rawiri Tristram-Brown, 13, hopes to one day play wheelchair basketball professionally.

The athletic teenager with spina bifida has been part of the team from the start and speeds down the field in a sports wheelchair sponsored by the manufacturers Melrose.

Freegard, also a Wheelies player, said his grandson hopes to compete professionally one day.

Coach Celeste Kernohan said Wheelies Manawatū started with the hope of building a team to compete in tournaments across New Zealand.

The country’s first-ever wheelchair basketball tournament, held in Palmerston North two weekends ago, was the first step, with the team buzzing with having such a high level to aspire to.

Auckland's Nikia Fa'atua playing for the Tuataras at Palmerston North.

WARWICK SMITH / Stuff

Auckland’s Nikia Fa’atua playing for the Tuataras at Palmerston North.

“After the tournament, these guys actually changed their mood, which is really good, they really wanted to try their luck,” Kernohan said.

The key to success was practice, with the Wheelies welcome to anyone who wanted to learn and improve.

They had legendary playoffs against an Army team and the Manawatū Jets, and regularly play against Massey University Recreation Center staff.

Wheelies Basketball takes place Wednesdays from 4-5 p.m. at the Recreation Center, with wheelchairs provided.

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