The London Sparrows: a wheelchair basketball team questions the Paralympics legacy

The wheelchair basketball game between London Sparrows and Brixton Ballers should have started by now, but a tardy referee has delayed the tip-off. The Sparrows’ moustachioed player-coach Amir is overseeing an extended warm-up while they wait. “We’re gonna have fun, but at the same time work. No one gets easy shots!” he barks at a dozen players from his wheelchair.

His team make a slow start, and end the first ten-minute quarter down 8-12 to the visitors. Amir takes charge from the start of the second. Polio has limited his arm movements, but he runs the court like a veteran playmaker, picking passes left and right. “Even when I was a brilliant shooter, most of my game was about assists,” he says. “The beauty of basketball is playing as a team.”

Wheelchair basketball evolved from a form of rehabilitation for injured World War II veterans into a sport that is now played by 100,000 people around the world. Amir entered the game in 1986, when he founded a team that were then known as the Hackney Sparrows.  “We were little people with little power, but we worked together to be high flyers,” he says. “At a time when everybody was calling themselves lions or tigers, we chose the name sparrows. Everybody was making fun of us.”

The mocking soon subsided. The Sparrows worked their way up from the bottom division of the sport to the top. Their past players include Ade Adepitan MBE, who won bronze at the 2004 Paralympics and fronted the Channel 4 coverage of the 2012 Paralympics.

Another ex-Sparrow, Francis, is keeping the score respectable for the Brixton side. He hits a long range shot from one corner, then a second from the other. His former teammates cheer him on. “He came to me about five or six years ago,” says Amir. “He couldn’t even lift the ball over his head because of his cerebral palsy. After about two years of training, he could shoot for the first time.” His contributions are not enough to catch the rampant Sparrows, who end the half 36-18 up.

Michiel, an articulate New Yorker with a Star of David pendant hanging from his neck, comes off the bench to score the first points of the second half on the SPACe sports centre court. The Hackney centre was a training venue for Paralympic basketball teams in 2012. Faded banners from the London games still hang from the rafters. “Inspire a generation,” they promise. “Everyone thought they would,” says Michiel. “But after the Paralympics, [the interest] petered off.”

The first day of the Paralympics coverage on Channel 4 drew a peak audience of 3.3 million viewers during the wheelchair basketball match between Great Britain and Germany. But when the Great Britain men’s team took gold at last year’s European Championships, media coverage was scant. Tucked away behind the BBC red button, their victory barely made a ripple. “If you don’t give the sport the exposure”, says Michiel, “you can’t blame the public for not being interested, because they don’t see it.”

Even within six months of the Paralympics ending, nine in 10 sports clubs reported no change in the number of disabled people joining their club, according to research released by the charity the English Federation of Disability Sport.

SPARROWS5
The Sparrows welcome all sexes, ages and even abilities. Credit: Thomas Macaulay

“We saw a growth in participation directly after the games,” says Lindsay Games, head of disability at Sport England, the public body responsible for increasing participation in sport. “We call it ‘the Wimbledon effect’. We see an uplift in tennis right after Wimbledon because people see it on television and decide to try it. But what we struggle with is that sustained participation from people.”

The number of disabled people who do 30 minutes of sport once a week today, she says, is just 17 per cent, less than half the 36 per cent of non-disabled people. “We need to drive the appetite and desire within disabled people themselves, to make them see that sport is a viable choice for them.”

But that viability of choice depends on funding that is unavailable, says Amir. “This country focuses on the GB team. There has been huge money invested there. But that money has not come down to the grassroots clubs.” Players purchase their own wheelchairs, which can cost up to £5,000. Funding for transport, refreshments, officials and gym rental all come from the club kitty. With sponsorship hard to come by, financial struggles almost killed the Sparrows.

But they’re alive and well on the court today. Brixton make a late run to finish the third quarter, but it ends with the Sparrows leading 50-25.  There’s a clash under the basket to start the fourth, a Sparrows player taking the brunt of the blow. “Not guilty,” jokes a tall woman playing for Brixton.

The game winds down comfortably for the Sparrows. It’s 60-33 at the buzzer. They remain unbeaten after eight games in the third division of the British Wheelchair Basketball League with four left to play. There could be some new recruits in the line-up for their upcoming top of the table clash with the Essex Outlaws.

“If we see someone in a wheelchair we try to pounce on them,” says the pony-tailed Kyprianos, one of the team’s longest-serving players. “Most try to run away. You want to be considered as a normal person. In a group of disabled people, you feel different.”

As he speaks, the tall woman stands up and begins dribbling the ball. “We try to include everybody,” explain Amir. “The league eventually allowed able-bodied players to play as a five pointer.” Each player is given a score between one and five based on their level of disability. A team’s total points on the court can’t exceed 15. “The chair is a great leveller,” says Games. “If you put non-disabled people into the chair as well, then everyone is at an equal basis.”

While disabled sports struggle for equal recognition off the court, the Sparrows have already achieved equality on it.

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