Maccabiah shines rare light on wheelchair basketball, thriving despite lack of support
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'The minister of sport never came to see us, the PM, nobody... I'm not asking to be famous, I want to be treated as another athlete. Even other athletes don't see me as an athlete'

Maccabiah shines rare light on wheelchair basketball, thriving despite lack of support

30 teams play across Israel, and the national side came 6th in Europe last year

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

The USA looks to score against Israel in the first wheelchair basketball competition of the 2017 Maccabiah Games, July 9, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
The USA looks to score against Israel in the first wheelchair basketball competition of the 2017 Maccabiah Games, July 9, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Ido Shkuri darted down the sideline of the basketball court, his hands alternately spinning the wheels of his wheelchair and dribbling the basketball bouncing in front of him. He deftly executed a 360-degree spin to evade a defender near his opponents’ endline before lobbing a shot towards the hoop, knocking the ball off of the rim.

Israel’s national wheelchair basketball team was playing team USA on Sunday as part of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem. The sport provides an athletic outlet for disabled competitors in Israel, but the athletes struggle with a lack of funding and support.

Wheelchair basketball is played by athletes with various disabilities, including amputated limbs, paralysis due to accidents and other birth defects. It is played on a standard basketball court with the usual 10-foot hoop. The only rule change regards traveling penalties; competitors can only touch their wheels twice after dribbling or receiving the ball. The chairs used are different from normal wheelchairs, with a lower center of gravity and wheels that angle inwards, with the top of the wheels closer to the players than the bottom, to help prevent them from tipping over.

The 20th Maccabiah Games, being held this month in Jerusalem, feature 10,000 Jewish athletes from 80 countries competing in 40 different sports. Disabled sports are making their second appearance at the games, which are held every four years. Besides wheelchair basketball, there is para-swimming and wheelchair tennis. One team from the United States and three Israeli teams are competing against each other in the games’ wheelchair basketball tournament this week.

In Israel, wheelchair basketball is played by nearly 30 teams based in different cities around the country, Shkuri said. The country’s top players compete on the national team, which placed sixth out of eight teams in the most recent European championships.

It is a welcome avenue for disabled Israelis who want to compete in a team sport, and benefits the players physically and psychologically, said Yoav Zarfati, who started playing five years ago after losing his left leg in a motorcycle accident. He was an avid soccer player before his injury, he said, and heard about wheelchair basketball while he was going through physical rehabilitation.

“I’m a person who really loves team sports. Soccer, unfortunately, I can’t do anymore,” Zarfati said. “Wheelchair basketball is a sport for everything, for fitness, for aggression. You don’t feel disabled,” he said.

Many of the players picked up the game during physical rehabilitation, said Shkuri, who started playing when he was 14-years-old. He had contracted cancer, and surgery on his hip left his left leg shorter and weaker than his right. Before the operation, sports, including soccer, table tennis and running, were a significant part of his life, he said.

Israel's wheelchair basketball team warms up before a game against a team from the United States, July 9, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israel’s wheelchair basketball team warms up before a game against a team from the United States, July 9, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Shortly after the surgery, a wheelchair basketball exhibition came to his school. Seeing Shkuri on crutches, they invited him to play. Now 19, he competes for a team based in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, and has played in the European championships twice.

The sport is relatively developed in Israel, Shkuri said, but suffers from a lack of government support and general recognition.

“The minister of sport never came to see us, the prime minister, nobody. We don’t really get support,” he said, pointing out that Germany’s sports minister actively supports its national team, one of the strongest in Europe.

“I’m not asking to be famous, I want to be treated as another athlete. Even other athletes don’t see me as an athlete,” he said.

Funding is another problem, said Gadi Slovik, the national team’s head coach. The Israeli government does not provide enough for disabled sports in general, said Slovik, who has played wheelchair basketball for 23 years and coached for 10. Better financing would allow more youth to play, and would let the adult team train more frequently, Slovik said.

“The adult players, they need to work, make a living,” Slovik said. “We really hope it will be more professional soon, and we won’t need to worry about providing for ourselves.”

The team was not able to pay for hotel rooms in Jerusalem for the Maccabiah Games, for example, and had to commute to the court from around the country to play every morning this week.

Israel's wheelchair basketball team before a game with the United States, July 9, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israel’s wheelchair basketball team before a game with the United States, July 9, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The team still welcomed the experience and chance to play in their home country against new competition, although the only other country represented in this week’s tournament is the United States. Funding and support are issues for disabled athletes elsewhere, and finding disabled Jewish athletes who could afford to make the trip and miss work was difficult, said Matt Darlow, the head coach of the United States team.

Maccabiah organizers located the American players via the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, based in the United States, said Darlow, who is also playing in the tournament. The team ranges in age from 15 to 53, and most had never visited Israel before. Two Israelis and one player from the United Kingdom joined the six American players for the competition.

Off the court, the players from both teams got along well, with several American players joining the Israeli team for lunch following Sunday’s game. The American players were partly inspired by their Jewish identity to participate, Darlow said, but the connection with the Israelis was due more to their common experience than their shared Jewish backgrounds.

“I think we feel a connection with any disabled athlete. It’s specific to the struggle,” Darlow said.

Ido Shkuri, a wheelchair basketball player for Israel's national team, takes a free throw during the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, July 9, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Ido Shkuri, a wheelchair basketball player for Israel’s national team, takes a free throw during the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, July 9, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

On the court, however, competition was fierce, and the players’ athleticism on full display. The competitors cut powerful, sweeping arcs across the floor, sometimes swerving onto one wheel, spun and pivoted their chairs into open space in concise, graceful movements, and slammed their chairs into one another to block and defend. The gym rang with the sound of the metal chairs colliding with each other and a faint smell of burnt rubber drifted into the small but enthusiastic crowd. The players tipped onto one wheel when shooting or reaching to block shots and sometimes keeled over, pushing themselves off the floor with their arms and scrambling back into their chairs to continue playing.

“People hit the floor, they bounce right back up,” Darlow said. “The Israelis want to win the gold medal as much as the USA does.”

The Americans, clad in white and red jerseys, ended up winning the game, 50-45. After the game and a short boxed lunch, the players returned to the court to watch two Israeli teams play against each other. The Israeli team then loaded their competition wheelchairs into a trailer and returned home to rest before their game the following day.

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