A Hungarian wheelchair basketball team is thriving against all the odds.
About half a million of Hungary’s 10 million inhabitants have some form of disability. About half of those people have limitations on their mobility, and in this category, just 11 percent were employed, according to the most recent national census, conducted in 2011.Although accurate statistics are lacking, those who live independently number a few tens of thousands at most.
How to go about helping those who lead isolated lives, and integrate them into a community that will give them a sense of belonging and of being equal members of society? This is the challenge that the Rolling Basket wheelchair basketball team in the southwestern Hungarian city of Pecs set out to tackle.
Everyone Was Enthusiastic, But No One Came
Wheelchair basketball was invented in 1946 in the United Kingdom and the United States to help in the rehabilitation of war veterans. Several decades later, it had become one of the most popular sports among athletes with disabilities. The court, the ball, and the baskets are all the same size as in basketball. In addition to skillful ball handling, accurate shooting, and being in solid physical shape, good players also need chair-management skills: turning, braking, crashing into other players, and maneuvers carried out while the wheelchair is in motion are all aspects that spice up this highly strategic game.
A motorcycle accident in 2011 left Marko Benedek in a coma for a month. His right leg was amputated below the thigh, and he lost vision of anything to the right of his body from either eye. He works at a dorm for international students at the University of Pecs. He started to play wheelchair basketball at the urging of his family, and now enjoys the sport and says it is great for tackling the boredom that can easily overcome him.
Laszlo Janovics is the president of the Baranya County Basketball Federation (Baranya is a region in southern Hungary, which is home to the major regional center of Pecs). In 2016, Janovics was watching the Paralympic Games in Rio when this dynamic and spectacular sport caught his eye. That was the moment when the idea of setting up a parabasketball team seized his imagination.
“Team sports – and basketball specifically – foster the development of several key competencies, such as adaptability, autonomy, and improved stress tolerance,” Janovics explains. “These are skills that we don’t pick up in school, but in the labor market these days they are more important even than vocational or professional education. And the team is a kind of experimental workshop, it is a natural terrain where interests clash and conflicts come up, where we have to tackle problems by adapting to and cooperating with one another and for one another.”
Still, getting from an idea to building an actual team was not easy.
Every morning, Anna Matyus visits a facility operated by a charity for people with disabilities. The daily routine allows Ancsa, as she is known to her friends and family, to be part of a community, do handicrafts, and participate in various literary and music activities as well as physical therapy. She learned about Rolling Basket while undergoing rehabilitation following the amputation of her left leg.
As the first step in the process, in 2017 Janovics handed out registration forms to potential new players at the championship final of the Hungarian Wheelchair Basketball Cup, which was taking place in Pecs. Yet, although the bleachers in Dezso Lauber Sports Arena were relatively full, he failed to recruit anyone that day.
A social media campaign for the budding team encouraged many people to volunteer their help in various ways, and make many offers of in-kind donations – but the one thing that was still lacking were athletes who wanted to play.
“That was the point when we realized that our goal of creating a community was impeded by the very isolation that we sought to remedy by launching this team,” Janovics recalls. “So the next challenge was to find potential players.”
Laszlo Kun was born with a movement disability, and grew up in a state-run children’s home. He tries to move around on his own when he can, and rides the bus to work every morning. He and his partner share a room in a care home with mostly elderly residents and few leisure-time opportunities. Wheelchair basketball was his introduction to active sports.
That required a lot of legwork. Once posting online invitations had been revealed as a failure, Janovics saw no alternative but to turn to his own network of friends and acquaintances, getting them to share the phone numbers of their friends to widen the net. The extensive search also drew on the help of former players as well as visits to companies that employ people with a reduced capacity to work.
By May 2018 these intense efforts had yielded four or five players, enough to start regular weekly training sessions. The roster soon grew to a full squad of 13. Thus, the Rolling Basket team was launched under the auspices of the University of Pecs Athletic Club.
As part of its ongoing recruitment effort, since last fall the team has also offered sensitivity training sessions where school students can learn about wheelchair basketball, sit in wheelchairs, and try the game by doing slaloms and participating in shooting contests, all in a playful atmosphere. Everyone gets the most out of these events, since the players who act as coaches at the sessions also feel more self-confident from their interactions with the students.
Daniel Szilard attempts a block on Marko during practice. Daniel was born with a spinal tumor. He completed a university degree in economics and now works as a financial controller. Joining Rolling Basket for him “was like a new dimension of the universe opened up to me. I had already given up on the idea of becoming a useful member of a community.” Strong on defense, he is one of the fastest players on the team.
A year ago, the team began allowing the public to watch its training sessions, yet another way of gaining publicity and attracting potential new players.
It’s Rounder Together
Early in 2019, the team started training at the newly built National Basketball Academy in Pecs. This is the fourth location so far where they have trained, but the first that is wheelchair accessible. They were received kindly at previous training locations, but at the academy, finally they don’t need to climb stairs or cross thresholds; the locker rooms and bathrooms are spacious and accessible; and there is a storage facility for their special basketball wheelchairs.
They have to get to the facility first, and that’s not necessarily easy, either. Even though Pecs, the capital of Baranya County, is doing comparatively well in terms of making its local bus transportation and the public squares in the city center wheelchair accessible (according to information provided by the local bus company Tuke Busz, 85 percent of their buses are low-floor vehicles), setting out in a wheelchair is still a risky enterprise.
Cognizant of the difficulties, the team commissioned a local entrepreneur to help transport players to their two weekly training sessions in a minibus equipped with a wheelchair lift.
Gyongyi Molnar works for the University of Pecs as an event organizer for students with disabilities. That was where she first heard about the team. A former fencer, she eagerly took up the chance to try a new sport, but when her doctors recommended against playing wheelchair sports, she went back to her previous favorite sport, swimming.
“At first, this was a job, and our relationship was professional. But the atmosphere quickly became familial,” says Lorant Somlan, the team’s driver. “Driving this team is my guaranteed dose of cheerful mood twice a week. That’s why I don’t mind when – in addition to transporting the team – I am also asked to help inflate tires or to pack and organize things.”
Although Rolling Basket participated in an international tournament in April 2019, and joined the national championship for the 2019-2020 season (until it was canceled in February as the coronavirus outbreak spread), it’s not all about sports.
“We hope that sports will improve the players’ social and labor market integration, and that it will motivate people with disabilities – who otherwise don’t leave their homes or rarely do so – to venture out more,” says Petra Katona, a volunteer who has been with the team since the outset and now helps with publicity and organization.
“Our slogan, ‘It’s rounder together,’ is also meant to reflect this goal and commitment.” In Hungarian, the word for “round” is almost the same as the word for “wheel,” while figuratively it also carries a sense of wholesomeness.
Gabor Klaics is one of the best players on the team, and his dream is to play at the Paralympic Games. Not long ago he finally achieved his goal of joining the national wheelchair basketball team.
And that’s not just fancy talk. The team members stay in touch with one another off the court, too. The team’s Facebook chat group is very active. They organize joint events and, using passes provided by the Baranya County Basketball Federation, they regularly attend local basketball games. They have become ardent fans.
There is no attrition, either: When someone drops out for a while due to health problems, he or she is still regarded as a team member. In fact, there are some who continue to be affiliated with the team even though they can’t play. Everyone is given some role, be it writing grant applications, designing the website, or pushing chairs.
The families of the athletes and the volunteers who help out are all treated as part of the team, too. The team’s board, consisting of Janovics and Zsolt Varhalmi, co-president of the Baranya County Basketball Federation, have helped find a job for the wife of a team member, and helped a relative of another player take a refereeing course.
The team’s training sessions and games – before the pandemic stopped play – have included former basketball players whose mobility became limited later in life, as well as players who are physically intact. This reverse integration approach also benefits team unity: The players who have spent their lives in wheelchairs receive a boost in self-confidence in that they are far more skilled in handling their wheelchairs than those teammates who started out in able-bodied sports.
The Data Privacy Barrier
Several Rolling Basket players with limited mobility lead very active lives: they hold down jobs, drive, and have also tried other sports. Nevertheless, despite the time and effort invested into recruitment, the team has not been very successful so far in attracting a younger generation of school- and university-age players. Nor are all wheelchair-using young people physically capable of playing this sport, since it is important for a player to be able to move their arms and upper body. Moreover, the complex game also requires a high level of intellectual skills and engagement.
Andras Magyar, the coach of the Sopron Tigers and general manager of the Hungarian national wheelchair basketball team, says recruitment continues to be a challenge even at the national level: “There is no recruitment in Hungary; all the gates are locked. Because of regulations protecting the confidentiality of patients’ medical records, we have no information whatsoever about persons with limited mobility.”
Aurel Vojtek, known as Stromi, is a former player and now a veteran radio and TV commentator for the Pecs men’s basketball team in Hungary’s first division. He began playing the sport in 1967 and now mentors the Rolling Basket team members. For Stromi, the team exemplifies “will, the desire to prove yourself. It’s a miracle. It is miraculous to watch this will come to life during the games, the players’ desire to prove themselves, their sense of standing up to fate.”
“There are no rookies [first-year players], and in a few years the existing community will be simply too old for this sport, and then we won’t have any basketball,” Magyar adds. “And that’s too bad, because this sport can give people with disabilities a future, a community, and an opportunity to be treated as people who have something valuable to contribute.”
An official decision to permit limited access to the contact details of people with disabilities would help inform them about sports and other opportunities, and, Magyar says, could even save the national health insurance system money. “Through their involvement in this sport people who have suffered an accident can reintegrate into society more speedily. And the hospital bills would be lower, too,” he adds.
Last fall, Rolling Basket organized a major international wheelchair basketball tournament, which was combined with a sensitivity-raising event. The team and the department of sports medicine at the University of Pecs have also jointly applied for a grant that would allow them to host an expert conference on the subject and to organize another 15 sensitivity sessions in schools, which could all potentially help in attracting young people to this sport.
Although recruitment remains the greatest problem, funding is also a challenge. In addition to rent for the arena where they play and the costs of transportation, equipment, and maintenance also devour a lot of money. Previously, the team’s expenses were covered by the Baranya County Basketball Federation, and for the time being the university athletic club foots the bill, with some help from the federation.
The Rehabilitation Center for Physically Disabled People (abbreviated as MEREK in Hungarian) sponsors the team, but the game is very expensive because of the special wheelchairs the players need. Until last year, Rolling Basket players used chairs donated by teams in the national league. Even these discarded chairs are an immense help for the recently launched team in Pecs, although they have not been individually customized for use by the players, and they are not fast enough. The cost of a new basketball wheelchair can run to more than $3,000. Fortunately, several dozen local businesses contribute to the team. Thanks to them and to a law that allows companies to earmark some of their social tax payments to sports or cultural organizations, the team now uses new playing chairs.
One sports team is not enough to tackle the issue of physical accessibility in an entire town, nor can it improve artificial limbs or make them less expensive. What it can do, however, is to help dismantle the prejudices in society about people with disabilities, and just as important, it can lift the self-confidence of these dedicated, challenged athletes, give them a sense of achievement, improve their social life, and help them break out of the monotony of their everyday routines.
Judit Ruprech is a freelance photojournalist, photographer, and graphic designer in Hungary.
The publication of this article was supported by Transitions, Mérték Media Monitor, and Ashoka.