If I didn’t bollock on about it every third article it would be a little known fact that I used to play wheelchair basketball. It’s almost 10 years since I gave up this fools errand, but I still occasionally go along to watch the team play. Yes, believe it or not, they have managed to carry on playing without me. Who’d have thought it?
The fact that they play their games 10 minutes from my house helps motivate me to attend. We used to play in Liverpool in my day. My day. It was a Thursday. Anyway, I spend enough time driving in and out of Liverpool during the week for work. I’m not sure I could stomach going in there at the weekend. It would feel too much like work. When it starts to feel like work it is time to get out. Funny that, I can remember a time when all I wanted to do was play wheelchair basketball professionally. But then I can also remember a time when I wanted to be called Alvin and when all I wanted to do on a Friday night was play Barry McGuigan’s Boxing on a Commodore 64. I didn’t even have a Commodore 64.
My old club currently run two teams. The second team is up first, playing against Leeds Spiders. Nobody likes Leeds to begin with, so calling themselves Spiders might not have been the best PR decision. They probably don’t want to be liked. They’re Leeds, after all. One of my former team-mates, another who has long-since escaped from the folly of actually getting on to the court and participating, points out that one of the Spiders looks like Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame. Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters. Does that make this team Dave Grohl’s Spiders? The real Grohl thinks he’s a hard case because he broke his leg on stage and carried on with the show, but he wouldn’t last five minutes in wheelchair basketball. These are athletes who blow raspberries at their own physical limitations, personal demons and the fact that society treats them like bellends to drag themselves through 40 minutes of committed, high-octane if not always high quality sporting endeavour. I’ve done it and it’s fucking tough.
The game is typical of this level. Low scoring but hard fought with some interesting decision making on show. Players at this level seem always to have their eyes fixed on the basket when they come into possession of the ball. The movements of their team-mates are an irrelevance most of the time. Sometimes that is because the movements of their team-mates are extremely limited. Other times it is because the player in possession cannot or does not want to see the movement of others. After three quarters of play our visitors from Dirty Leeds have only scored 18 points, and we have 28. I tell the other ex-players watching on that even if we don’t score again we will win this game. The maths seems to back it up. If they have only scored 18 points in three quarters of play, it is unlikely that they will reach the vertigo-inducing heights of 28 points. My fellow experts nod sagely, but we’re all wrong. Not about the result, but about our visitors’ capacity to rack up more than half of the points they have scored to that point in the few minutes that remain. They get to 28, but can’t stop our lot staggering over the line with three more of their own to win it 31-28.
It has to be said that we haven’t watched as intently as we might have. By the time Leeds begin their revival we have already dissected the problems currently endured by Oldham Athletic under new manager David Dunn. The same David Dunn who once fell over trying to chip a ball in behind a defender by wrapping his right leg around the back of his left leg and who, according to the man himself, could still breeze through a campaign in any Championship midfield at the age of 35. Pity Oldham are in League One. Dunn is in because the previous incumbent, Darren Kelly, fooled everyone with his claim that his previous job as manager of Sunderland’s under-14s would give him the contacts he needed to build Oldham back up to where they were in the hey-day of Frankie Bunn and Andy Ritchie.
In between games this blog becomes a topic of conversation. Someone tells me that he likes reading it because it always makes him feel better about his own life, such is the level of stupid shit that happens to me on a daily basis. I’m delighted to be providing that service, obviously. Someone else suggests that this column may go over the top occasionally. That’s not a charge I’m about to deny, and we laugh loudly about the time I claimed that the GBWBA Association committee was corrupt. What? That’s fair comment, isn’t it? They’re not there anymore, anyway. There are different people in charge now, one of whom is yet another of my ex-team-mates. I’ve been around a bit in my 20 years in the game, it seems.
So much so that someone just has to bring up the story behind my acrimonious departure from anything resembling the international wheelchair basketball scene. We laugh again as we recall how I was unceremoniously jettisoned by the under-23 coach (now the GB men’s head coach, or at least he was last time I gave enough of a shit to check). Having started in most of the training sessions leading up to the 1997 World Under-23 Championships in Toronto I soon found myself at the very bottom of the pecking order, behind even the most average player ever to play international basketball who shall remain nameless for the simple fact that he is a bloody nice lad who wasn’t even interested in playing wheelchair basketball and so it would be grossly unfair to criticise him. He was a track athlete who somehow found himself in the squad. We had depth, back then. Anyway, when even he was preferred to me I knew the game was up. I held a grudge for a while, swearing I would refuse the call-up which inevitably never came. It seems they had moved on from lippy, three-foot point guards with cows arse-barn door syndrome. Again, who knew? Like my burgeoning professional career, the grudge has gone and now there is only laughter at the very thought that any of it really ever mattered. Which is of course why I have included it here.
The second lot of opposition were, on local parlance, different gravy to the Spiders. When I started this blog I never thought I would find myself writing the phrase ‘different gravy to the Spiders’ but there you are. Funny old world. I have no idea where Knights come from. Wales, perhaps. Belfast Knights won’t be happy about the blatant theft of their nickname but then again they can hardly lay claim to have thought of it in the first place. This lot are not quite as good as the old Belfast teams were at their best, but they have a couple of taller players who are more than useful shooters. Soon they have built up a comfortable lead of over 20 points and are cruising a little bit. That allows us to sneak back in to the game and with some improved shooting, reduce the arrears to single figures late in the game. We don’t really threaten to complete the comeback, but we are competitive at least. On the sidelines, one of the ex-players in our group has given up to go shopping while our talk turns to early 90’s NBA stars. From John Starks to Reggie Miller and even as far as Luc Longley and Bill Wennington (who?), NBA basketball was much better in those days, we conclude. This may or may not coincide with the fact that at that time we were at an age when we could still play without sustaining a broken hip or a hernia.
Throughout this whole experience, sitting there watching two games almost in their entirety, I never really get the urge to make an ill-advised comeback. There’s always a moment, usually during the warm-up, when I wish I could go on court and shoot a few lay-ups or lob up a few wild three point efforts. But as soon as the game starts the urge disappears. It’s all too much like hard work, especially against people half my age who take this shit seriously enough to wear a gum shield! The discovery of said gum shield draws a few ‘not in my day’ murmurs from the sidelines but on further reflection I don’t think I’d go out there now without full riot gear. I fall out of my chair now going down Slater Street towards Burger King. I shudder to think what would happen to me if I was to go back to chasing after a round piece of leather with the people of the wheelchair basketball world, many of whom place little emphasis on their own safety on court.
The longer it is since I played, the better I was.