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16 Things That Might Surprise You About Wheelchair Basketball

"There’s no 'standard' route into the sport."

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1. It was invented by soldiers more than 70 years ago.

Wounded Warrior Regiment / Via Flickr: usmcwwr

The sport originated in the 1940s in the United States. Many amateur basketball players suffered injuries from serving in the armed forces during the second world war and developed wheelchair basketball in order to keep playing.

2. There's no "standard" route into the sport since nobody played it at school.

Ruth Eytle, London development officer at the governing body British Wheelchair Basketball, says recruitment can be tough as there's no conventional route for people to find the sport. "I always stop people in the street because you can't make the assumption that people are going to look up wheelchair basketball or even know that there are disability sports out there," she says.

Other Paralympic athletes competing in Rio have different stories. "I went to buy a regular day chair and the guy who was measuring turned out to be the coach of my local team and a former GB coach," says 26-year-old women's co-captain Helen Freeman.

3. And people have a variety of reasons for choosing to get involved.

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Sophie Carrigill has been playing for only four years but the 22-year-old is already co-captaining Team GB's Paralympic women's squad. She says: "I got into the sport after being involved in a car accident that left me paralysed. I'd also been very sporty and it felt natural to get back into sport. I choose wheelchair basketball as it looked fast and exciting and quite similar to netball, which is the sport I played the most before my accident."

4. You don't need to be disabled to play.

University of the Fraser Valley / Via Flickr: ufv

Anyone can have a go at an amateur level, whether you're disabled or not. Eytle coaches a range of people in wheelchair basketball. "Not everyone knows it as an inclusive sport – so you can bring your friend, your brother, your sister, whoever," she says.

"Sometimes the thought of playing wheelchair basketball deters people who have a disability because they haven't had a positive experience in sport generally, so it's helpful if they can bring someone along."

5. With a few small exceptions, the rules are the same as regular basketball.

Nottingham Trent University / Via Flickr: nottinghamtrentuni

The wheelchair is basically treated as an extension of the player's body, so if part of the chair touches a line, then the player is touching the line.

Just like in regular basketball, players aren't allowed to travel with the ball. They have to bounce it after every two pushes of the wheelchair.

6. The baskets are the same height too.

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In fact, everything on the court is exactly the same – the foul line, the three-point line, the size of the hoops. The baskets hang 3.05m off the floor – the same height as in regular basketball. Wheelchair basketball players just throw further.

7. You can crash your wheelchair into someone else.

Wheelchair basketball is a contact sport, so there are a lot of collisions. But it's not a free-for-all – there are rules about how you can collide with others. For example, you can't ram the front of your chair into the front of another player's chair.

8. Basketball wheelchairs are totally different from the ones people would use on the street.

The chairs are slick, sporty, and uniquely designed for basketball with slanted wheels to improve stability and manoeuvrability, and a bar around the footplate to protect the player from contact. They come in different sizes too, depending on the size of the player and how high up they prefer to be.

9. There's no need to get your own wheelchair to take part.

University of the Fraser Valley / Via Flickr: ufv

Clubs have a stock of basketball chairs so they're always likely to have one you can play in – which is good news considering they're super expensive to buy at £1,500 for a basic model. Eytle says the cost of the chairs can be really prohibitive to bringing talented players up to the top levels, which makes sponsorship of clubs and players essential. "We've got a lot of kids now coming from disadvantaged backgrounds that need elite chairs – and one elite chair is £3,500 – so if you're coming from a disadvantaged background, and you want to go on and represent your country, that's a big barrier in itself."

10. There's one simple way they make the game fair, since some people have more restricted movement than others.

Teams usually have 12 players, with five on the court at any one time. There's a classification system where players are given a grade between 1 and 4.5 – the higher the grade, the lower the impairment. Team GB men's co-captain Simon Brown explains: "I am a 2.0 classification. I had a virus that damaged my spine when I was a kid. Being a 2.0 generally means you have no use of your legs within the chair to help push or gain height and also means you will have balance issues, especially if you try and sit in a higher chair."

The team on court has to add up to no more than 14 points, which means everyone can play, no matter their impairment, and it doesn't favour those with a larger range of movement.

11. It's incredibly athletic.

Carlos Ocasio / Via Flickr: cocasio

Don't be fooled by the fact players are sat down; wheelchair basketball is just as physically demanding as other sports. It requires the skills of basketball – quick decision-making, agility, and proficiency in shooting and handling the ball – with the ability to simultaneously haul your own bodyweight around with your arms, core, and upper body.

Keeping up with the physicality and speed of the game is the biggest challenge for men's co-captain Terry Bywater, 33, who is one of Team GB wheelchair basketball's most experienced players. The left-leg amputee has been playing since he was 12 years old.

12. In addition, the Paralympic teams train five times a week.

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They train for a total of 30 hours, often away from friends and family in Worcester, which is a real commitment for any sportsperson. Carrigill says she doesn't have much chance to do anything else outside of wheelchair basketball but it's worth it to play the game. She says: "I love that it is fast and aggressive. I'm a very competitive person so I love all the games we play and fighting to win them. I love that we get to play with our friends every day and train hard for something that we all love."

13. The wheelchairs often tip over.

Belts hold the athletes into their chairs so they don't fall out, however wheelchairs often tip over during gameplay. While the chairs are generally very stable, players tend to push them to the limits by leaning over for the ball or colliding with other players at speed. This usually doesn't cause problems in the game, though, as most players can right themselves very quickly with just their arms. With experience, players tend to get pretty agile – for example, some can balance on one wheel or do handstands in their chair.

14. It's a great sport to watch.

Wheelchair basketball is one of the most popular disability sports as it's very fast-paced and easy to follow. Both Team GB's men's and women's teams are competing in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. See the full schedule.

15. It's OK to admit that racing around a sports hall in a wheelchair looks really fun.

Freeman advises anyone thinking of joining to give it a go. "There are so many social benefits as well as physical," she says. Baywater agrees, adding: "Simply enjoy it! The team should feel like a family."

Find a club near you.

16. Team GB has a chance of picking up a medal.

British Wheelchair Basketball

Both of Great Britain's wheelchair basketball teams finished outside of the medals table in the London 2012 Paralympics, but could stand a chance of walking away with something in Rio. "Our current ranking is fifth in the world so we are just looking to improve on that," says Carrigill. "We would love to get to a semifinal and take things from there. But you never know what will happen at these kind of tournaments because there is such a high level of competition and it's a high-pressurised situation, so let's wait and see!"

Brown is pretty optimistic. "This year's Paralympics could be the most competitive of all time," he says. "There are five or six teams who could all realistically get a medal and we are one of them."

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