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Wheelchair Basketball

Read about wheelchairs and get details on wheelchair basketball.

Wheelchairs provide mobility to people suffering from movement disorders and injuries. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Wheelchairs provide mobility to people suffering from movement disorders and injuries.

Wheelchairs provide mobility to people suffering from movement disorders and leg or spinal injuries. The first evidence of wheelchair technology has been found in engravings from China, dated to the first century C.E., though some believe that wheelchairs may have emerged even earlier in history.

Wheelchair Basketball

Over centuries of development, engineers and designers have cooperated to create wheelchairs that were capable of refined movement and that allowed users greater flexibility of movement. According to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, the first wheelchair athletics emerged after World War II, when wheelchair-bound veterans began inventing creative ways to stay fit and to engage in social recreation. The first wheelchair sports were games that required little movement with the chair, like table tennis and catch.

The California chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America is credited with playing the first game of wheelchair basketball in the United States in 1946, followed that same year by a similar game in New England. Within two years, wheelchair basketball was becoming popular across the United States and had spread to Canada and England.

Until 1948, the sport was organized by the Paralyzed Veterans Association and was only open to paraplegics and persons with spinal cord injuries. The National Wheelchair Basketball Association started an alternative tournament, which was open to paraplegics, persons with spinal cord injuries and persons with a variety of other movement disorders, including limb damage from polio and other illnesses. Within a few years, the NWBA tournament had eclipsed the PVA tournament, making the NWBA the primary wheelchair basketball association in the United States, according to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Fame.

The International Stroke Mandeville Games Federation, which was the single international body regulating wheelchair sports, created a subsection for the sport of wheelchair basketball in 1973. In 1989, this subsection of the ISMGF was named the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation.

The IWBF is the governing body for wheelchair basketball competition in the International Paralympic Games, the most prestigious international sporting event for disabled athletes. Teams that are part of the NWBA and other national wheelchair basketball associations around the world are eligible to take part in the Paralympic Games.

The Rules of Wheelchair Basketball

Both the NWBA and the IWBF publish official rule guidelines each year. With few exceptions, the rules of wheelchair basketball are the same as the rules for standard basketball. Complete official rules for both the NWBA and IWBF are available online:

NWBA Official Rules

IWBF Official Rules

Several rules have been altered from the rules for standard basketball to better suit those playing in wheelchairs. Special rules according to the American Heart Association include:

Traveling: players are allowed to hold the basketball while executing one or two pushes on the wheels of their chair. The pushes may move the chair in either a forward or backward direction. Executing more than two pushes without dribbling, passing or shooting is considered a traveling violation.

Physical Advantage: players who have one functional leg, or a moveable stump, are prohibited from using their functional limb to gain an advantage by raising their position in the wheelchair. Failure to adhere to the physical advantage rule results in a technical foul.

Double-dribbling: players may dribble and hold the ball in consecutive intervals so long as they do not violate the traveling rule. This rule allows players to switch hands with the ball over their wheelchairs, since it is not possible to cross over by dribbling under or in front of the chair while moving.

Tilting and Falling:
players are not allowed to tilt their wheelchairs to such an extent that their hands, arms or the footrests of the wheelchair make contact with the floor while holding the ball. Doing so results in a technical foul.

The rules created by the NWBA and IWBF are universal for all teams participating in national or international competitions. Because athletes in the league have varying levels of disability, a system has been established to rate players on their level of disability. The scale ranges from one to four and a half, with one being the lowest level of mobility and four and a half representing players who have use of both legs.

Wheelchair basketball organizations also create standards for the types of chairs that can be used in competition play. There are a number of companies that create wheelchairs designed for sports and specifically for the maneuvering required for playing basketball.

According to the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the standard specifications for sport wheelchairs include the following:

  • The height of the seat must not exceed 21 inches from the floor.
  • The height of the foot platform must not exceed 4 7/8 inches from the floor.
  • Cushions used on the wheelchair must not exceed two inches in thickness.

Leagues and Teams in Wheelchair Basketball

The NWBA operates men's, women's, intercollegiate and youth teams across the United States. There are more than 200 registered teams playing in NWBA tournaments and 22 conferences, which are groups of teams organized according to region or other geographical consideration.

The IWBF is organized according to zones, representing geographic areas. Each zone contains a number of countries, which may in turn have their own national wheelchair basketball organizations. Within each zone, there are National Organizations of Wheelchair Basketball, which represent the qualified teams within a certain geographic area. As of 2008, there were 76 active NOWBs participating in the Paralympic Games. The NWBA is one of the NOWBs that qualify for competition in IWBF-sanctioned competition according to the IWBF.

In the United States, wheelchair basketball players often start out in youth leagues, and many move on to play at the collegiate level. To qualify for competition at the highest levels of national and/or international play, a player will need to be accepted onto one of the qualified national teams sanctioned by an organization like the NWBA.

There are also a number of local, state and regional competitions for wheelchair basketball teams. While some competitions are recognized by national organizations, there are other local and state competitions held by alternative organizations not affiliated with international sanctioning bodies. Recreational wheelchair basketball is played at disabled persons organizations around the world.

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