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HomeSportBasketballOn a roll! Manly wheelchair basketballers join national competition

On a roll! Manly wheelchair basketballers join national competition

The Manly Wheel Eagles wheelchair basketball team have been accepted into the 2024 season of the elite Australian National Wheelchair Basketball League (NWBL). This is a phenomenal achievement considering the team was only formed two years ago and first began competing locally in June 2022.

The Wheel Eagles also reached the finals in their first year of competing in the NSW state tournament, the Waratah League.

The Manly Wheel Eagles (whom Manly Observer previously featured in June 2022) now compete at three levels of wheelchair basketball. This includes the Club Challenges regional competition, Basketball NSW’s Waratah League (a semi-professional basketball league in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory founded in 2022), and now the NWBL nationwide championship (established 1988) administered by Wheelchair Basketball Australia (WBA).

This reporter attended a training session at the Northern Beaches Indoor Sports Centre (NBISC) in Warriewood and talked to head coach Gerry Hewson, coach and player Koen Jansens, and team manager Elisa Spano about this exciting development.

Gerry Hewson, who represented Australia in four Paralympics, including the gold medal-winning team at the 1996 Games, has been with the Wheel Eagles since its inception. Gerry was enthusiastic about their joining the national tournament. “Well for us – a brand new club, a lot of rookies, a lot of new players, but a couple of experienced players – it’s going to be a huge challenge!”

A younger Gerry Hewson when he represented Australia in wheelchair basketball at the 2000 Paralympic Games. Photo: Australian Paralympic Committee

Koen Jansens, who represented Netherlands at four Paralympic Games from 1992 to 2004, expressed pride at his squad’s achievements. “It’s amazing, it’s really quite special how quickly we’ve developed from a new club a couple of years ago, to now having a spot in the national league. We’re kind of restarting that whole league. After COVID it all went downhill pretty quickly, so it’s exciting that there’s opportunities for clubs like Manly to join.”

He added, “We’ve got a number of new recruits, people that have recently joined our team. The most notable one is Bill Latham; he’ll represent Australia later on in the year at the Paris Paralympics. So that’s a super exciting signing! He actually lives in Spain, plays in Spain professionally, and he’s coming over to help us out in our first year.”

“Mentorship is an integral part of wheelchair basketball,” said Elisa, “and will be on display with Manly’s NWBL team, consisting of players new to national league to very accomplished Paralympians. Bill Latham, who is part of the Australian Men’s team, The Rollers, will be playing for the Wheel Eagles before heading over to Paris for the 2024 Paralympics.”

Koen Jansens lines up for a shot at the net. Photo: Alec Smart

Elisa is able-bodied, how did she come to be the team’s intrepid manager?

“One of my sons is a wheelchair basketball athlete, so he uses a wheelchair, and just through the social club level, he’s made his way up to state level. I just kind of stepped forward into the role to help organise things.”

Female participation

The nationwide contest, which takes place throughout June, July and August 2024, is divided between female [WNWBL – established in 2000] and male [NWBL] competitions. The men’s league is considered ‘gender neutral’ which means women can join men’s teams. Manly Wheel Eagles are fielding a strike-force with two dynamic female athletes in the squad: Annabelle Lindsay and Kylie Gauci.

Annabelle is a gifted player who for seven years (2009-2015) represented the ACT State Team in the Australian National Championships in her age group. After being granted a scholarship to study at Minot State University in the USA, she was destined for a professional career as an able-bodied basketball player.

Unfortunately, a knee injury in April 2016 shattered her ambitions and she never fully recovered, despite surgery.

However, she was recommended to join the Canberra Chargers, a mixed gender wheelchair basketball team, then graduated to the Sydney University Flames in the WNWBL, and was eventually selected to represent Australia in international competitions as part of The Gliders women’s national squad.

Annabelle Lindsay playing for the Sydney University flames in 2017. Photo: Hawkeye7/Wikipedia

Kylie is also a multi-medal-winning champion and has represented Australia in wheelchair basketball at three Paralympic Games: Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). Born with lumbar sacral agenesis (a congenital disorder in which the lower spine is not fully formed) she began competing in wheelchair basketball in 1996, when she was just 11 years old.

National competition

In the NWBL, the Manly Wheel Eagles will be facing teams from five states – Red Dust Healers (Victoria), Adelaide Thunder, Perth Wheelcats, Darwin Salties and Southern Districts Spartans (Queensland) – plus the Wollongong Roller Hawks from Illawarra NSW.

The Roller Hawks are the reigning NWBL champions (and previous winners in 2017, 2018, 2019), so the fiercest competition the Wheel Eagles may expect will come from just 100km south of Sydney.

The actual competitive season is relatively short – 7 rounds of 3 games before the finals – beginning with round 1 against the 2023 league winners, the aforementioned Wollongong Roller Hawks, on 15 June.

Seven home games will be held on the Northern Beaches, with matches at the PCYC in Dee Why and the NBISC in Warriewood, so supporters will have numerous chances to get behind their local team and cheer them on.

Koen Jansens attempts to block a shot by Annabelle Lindsay during training. Photo: Alec Smart


Because competitors have different levels of agility and physical impairments, they are regulated by a grading system that determines their manoeuvrability. This prevents one team from fielding a unit that is considerably more able-bodied than their rivals.

Elisa explained, “Players are assigned a point value from 1.0 to 4.5 depending on their level of physical impairment. Teams consist of 5 players and must not exceed a total of 14.0 points on the court at any one time.”

Gerry elaborated, “We have a classification system, which basically goes from a 1 point player, which is a person with the most level of disability, to a four-and-a-half point player, a person with the least level of disability. They may have an amputated foot or toe. One of our players here had cancer and he has a prosthetic through the middle of his leg. Because he lost a lot of muscle and tone, he’s a four and a half…”

He continued, “Everyone has a classification card and they’re internationally classified as to how many points they are: one, one-and-a-half, two, two-and-a-half, three, three-and-a-half, it all goes up by halves to 4.5. So, you have five cards on the bench and add them up.

“You need a combination of low pointers, mid pointers and high partners to actually play the game and that’s the beauty of it… You can only have a maximum of 14 points distributed among the five players allowed on court at any one time… If you go over 14 points it’s a technical foul and the other team gets a free shot at goal.”

When you’re in the middle of a game and you’re preparing substitutes and swapping players around, it must be a challenge to keep an eye on the maths to avoid having players on the field whose cumulative point scores exceed 14?

“Yes, and I was hopeless at that as a coach,” Gerry laughed. “I always had someone to add that up!”

Do you favour certain players as goal scorers and other players as blockers?

“Yes and no, it just depends on how good shooters they are. Like when I played I was a pretty good shooter… If you’re a low pointer you tend to scream for the bigger guys to get inside [the shooting circle] so they can shoot closer to the basket.

“My level is a 2.5, so, my balance and other low pointers’ balances are pretty poor, especially when you’re hit by a chair while shooting the ball. Whereas a 4.5 is more like an able-bodied person who’s strapped into the chair. They’re not going to move much, so having them closer to the basket is a good idea.”

Does that mean blocking and ramming with the wheelchair is allowed?

“Yeah, because a chair counts as part of your body, so you can use it as a weapon if you want to. Sometimes that happens, maybe a person does it on purpose… Basically, you’ve got to cover the path of the person you’re trying to defend and referees and players have got a rough idea of how that works. So, there’s a little bit of contact, a bit of blood and guts, but most of the time it’s okay.”

Sometimes competitors are knocked over during combat. Photo: Alec Smart

Rules and regulations

All NWBL games are played on standard-sized basketball courts with standard height (3.048 metres) baskets. Wikipedia online encyclopedia explains, “Basketball wheelchairs are designed for enhanced stability. The centre of gravity is where the chair and the athlete’s mass are equally distributed in all directions… A wheelchair with a higher seat is easier to tip. Basketball chairs have lower seats and wheels that are angled outward so that the centre of gravity has to move a greater distance before it passes over the fulcrum and tips the chair.

“Guards use wheelchairs different from those of centres and forwards. Forwards and centres are typically under the net, so their chairs have higher seats and therefore less stability, but the height increases the player’s reach for shots at the hoop and for rebounds.”

There are usually three referees officiating each game, which consists of four 10-minute quarters. Scoring is the same as able-bodied barbecue – 3 points if the ball is thrown from outside the marked goal circle, 2 points within.

“For us to score a three-pointer you can have your front wheels over the line,” Gerry said. “Front wheels over is fine but if your back wheels go over then it’s only a two point goal.”

The main difference is the ‘no double-dribble’ rule in wheelchair basketball. Players must dribble or pass the ball after two pushes of their chair, otherwise the referee declares a ‘travel’ offence has occurred.

Manly Wheel Eagles training at Warriewood Indoor Sports Centre. Photo: Alec Smart

According to Basketball Australia, “Wheelchair basketball is currently hailed as the fastest-growing sport for athletes with a disability. The game was initiated in the late 1940s when basketball players returned from World War II to the US, unable to play able-bodied basketball, and adapted the rules to enable it to be played in wheelchairs. It is now played in over 80 countries with over 100,00 players at all levels globally.”

Sponsorship opportunity

Koen finished with an appeal for sponsors. “I’m really, really happy with the local support. I just want to thank a number of local companies that are helping us out; naming-rights sponsor is Sargood, the Sargood Foundation of Collaroy.”

Sargood is a Northern Beaches-based charity that exists to support and provide resources for people living with Spinal Cord Injury.

He continued, “We’ve got a number of other companies that are also supporting us. However, we pretty much have to fundraise and, hopefully through sponsorship, build a budget with very little support from anybody else. It’s a lot of hard work to get this done.”

Elisa elaborated: “Entry into the NWBL is not funded by any sporting body in NSW. Manly Wheelchair Basketball Association, a not-for-profit charity run by volunteers, requires sponsorship to reach our target for NWBL entry fees, which are approximately $50,000.”

Those interested in sponsoring Manly Wheel Eagles can contact them at: https://www.manlywheelchairbasketball.com/

 National League games:

The NWBL season begins on Saturday 15 June and the WNWBL the following week, on 22 June. The finals take place at the season’ end on 10-11 August and it will be hosted by 2023 champions Roller Hawks at Shellharbour City Stadium, Illawarra, NSW.

Round 1 on 15 June, Manly Wheel Eagles versus Wollongong Rollerhawks features two away games: 12pm at Shellharbour City Stadium and 7pm at the Snakepit, Beaton Park.

Manly Wheelchair Basketball on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/people/Manly-Wheelchair-Basketball-Association/61557090489412/

National Wheelchair Basketball League 2024 season games fixture.


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Manly Observer is an experiment in providing non-sensationalist hyperlocal news on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We cover the big news across the LGA, but with a hyper focus on the Manly electorate encompassing Balgowlah, Seaforth, Freshwater, Brookvale and Curl Curl up to Dee Why. It is run by those living in the community for the benefit of an informed community. We care about an informed and connected community. That’s it. Simple. Thank you for your support in keeping quality local news alive!

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