TOKYO — In order to live in wheelchair basketball for a living, members of the American Paralympic men’s team have had to train their passports a lot.
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 crowds in Turkey by recommending a YouTube video of a brawl between fans during a match in Istanbul. The police came. 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 and then returns to Chicago to be close to his wife’s family. He recently joined Steve Serio and Michael Paye, four-time American Paralympics, on the mighty RSV Lahn-Dill team in Wetzlar, Germany.
Some of their European competitors have been surprised by the lack of professional wheelchair competition in the United States, the cradle of the sport and the reigning Paralympic champion in the men’s and women’s games.
“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, with the NBA being the major league it is.”
Joshua Turek, 41 and his fourth Paralympic appearance for the United States, understands his home country’s limited sports palette. He’s hardly flabbergasted that he and his teammates had to become expats to continue playing the game they love at the highest level.
“Unfortunately not,” said Turek, who played abroad for about 16 years. “The United States’ view of sports is very masculine. I think you see some of the struggle for the WNBA and most women’s sports. And I think handicapped and adaptive sports are often put in the same category.
Many players in the WNBA go abroad in the off-season to increase their income and often get deals that are worth significantly more than their earnings in the US. There is no professional league for women for wheelchair players, although the British Wheelchair Basketball Association recently announced it plans to introduce one next year.
Some professional men’s teams in Europe have a woman on their roster, under a scheme based on the impairment classification system used in Paralympic sports. The basketball rating scale starts at one point for players with the most limited functional capacity and goes up to 4.5 points; the total for a team’s five players on the field may not add up to more than 14 at any time.
In the men’s professional leagues, 1.5 points are subtracted from a woman’s standings, allowing her team to build a slightly stronger cast around her than with a man classified at the same level.
Rose Hollermann, 25, of the US women’s team, which is rated at 3.5 points, began playing for a Spanish team in the Canary Islands in 2019, not long after graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington, which is one of the strongest wheelchair basketball programs.
She thought she would play there for a year in Las Palmas, in an apartment paid for by the team, close to the Atlantic Ocean. After that, she said, she would return home to “start a career and settle in.”
That plan didn’t last long. The fans hugged Hollermann and chanted “Rosa Maria” or “Rosemary”. Her Spanish went so far that she didn’t always rely on the translator in the group. And she saw the possibility of a career in basketball.
“I realized it was something I love very much,” Hollermann said, “and I don’t know when I’ll be willing to give it up.”
For men in the Paralympics, playing professionally has become essential. The experience cannot be replicated, players say, even in a high-level amateur organization like the top division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, which includes the New York Rollin’ Knicks. They should still work, leaving less time to play basketball.
So the Americans leave the house. According to different players, the pay varies greatly depending on the country and caliber of the players. But the best Paralympics in Europe can get a salary of 45,000 to 60,000 euros, or about $53,000 to $70,000, for about eight months of work, often with the team covering the cost of housing and maybe even a car.
At the Paralympics, loyalty must be recaptured, at least temporarily.
Last week in Tokyo, the US and Germany met in the first round, with Bestwick on one side and Paye, who was the groomsman at Bestwick’s wedding, on the other. They played together for Lahn-Dill under Nicolai Zeltinger, who coaches the German Paralympic team.
“Probably half of their roster right now that I’ve played with at some point in my career,” said Paye, who married a German woman and has no plans to move back to the US.
Scott delivered 10 crucial assists in a thrilling 58-55 American win, and at the final buzzer, Andre Bienek of Germany asked him to pat him on the back. The two were teammates at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, another university with a renowned wheelchair basketball program.
“As a five-time Paralympic, I know all these guys,” said Scott. “There is someone on the ground, I played against them. I know what they have for breakfast. I know who their cousins are.”
He said he wondered if the fact that so many Americans play abroad had diminished the team’s advantages.
“You saw how strong that German national team was,” said Scott. “A good majority of our players have played there and they improve the game for other countries and that sometimes diminishes ours.”
Turek sees the same changes and views them with appreciation for the game’s evolution.
For years, he said, the most effective setup for wheelchair basketball has been top-heavy, with, say, two major players rated 4.5, then a 3, then two ones. Over the past decade, he said, the US has introduced a more balanced approach that delivers an up-tempo game with an emphasis on the outside shot.
“We’re not playing against these huge guys,” Turek said, “but we’re just really, really good one through five. And basically everyone in the world has now transformed into our system.”
But can the US ever be transformed into a home for professional wheelchair basketball?
Bestwick declined to speculate as to why the sport hadn’t progressed further in the United States, as he hasn’t played regularly in the country. But he had a clear idea of what it took to create a successful competition.
“Germany sees wheelchair basketball as a professional sport, but it is also a sport for the disabled. But the handicap isn’t the main focus,” he said. “The main focus is that it’s aggressive, it’s fast, it’s dynamic, it’s so inclusive.”