With few opportunities to practice as a team due to the work and educational commitments of the players, practice games are intensely contested and very important for coaches to gauge skill levels and evolution.

Scores of young men poured out of a huge boys hostel at a sprawling university in the outskirts of an uncharacteristically cool Chennai. The wings of the hostel overlooked a covered courtyard the size of a football field. At its heart was a full length wooden floored basketball court peppered with women in wheelchairs. They shouted out instructions and admonitions, playing hard, giving no quarter. The selection trials for the Indian national women’s team has been intensely competed here for nine ardous days under the watchful eyes of volunteer Head Coach, Anthony Pereira, a paraplegic veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pak war and Lee Simon Roy, able bodied and at one time a national level basketball player. The top 12 women from this group represented the country for the first time ever at the Asian Para Games qualifiers in Bangkok in March 2018. The top teams from there have a shot at the Tokyo Paralympic games in 2020. 
Wheelchair basketball is a nascent sport in India, with the official Indian federation formed just over three years earlier, although the sport has long been popular among disabled veterans in the armed forces. Only recently has the federation been able to apply to be recognised by the Sports Authority of India, that till recently had only supported individual sports at the paralympics. The challenges for the sport, especially the women’s variant, are many, ranging from the broader issues of wheelchair accessibility for accommodation, transportation and toilets to the more specific ones involving expensive spare parts that can only be imported and sub par sports wheelchairs. President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India, Madhavi Latha, is wheelchair bound due to spinal compression. Sport saved her life, when she was given a year to live, almost 8 years earlier. But the biggest impediment to their progress according to her, is “a lack of awareness. There is a lot of ignorance across all levels. Among disabled people, their parents and general public. Even I did not know much about disability before my own health issues. If people come to know about this they might come forward to help. Even if they know they might think that other issues like eradication of poverty, employment, health, education are higher on the agenda than sports. I have been trying to convince them that sport is part of education and health and through this they can get employment opportunities as well. Things that can take years to learn in a classroom environment can be understood in a week using sport.”

This lack of awareness has a deep impact on funding, something that is a constant worry for the federation. According to Latha, around 80% of the players come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. The magnitude of this issue is currently illustrated by their desperate plea for a mere Rs. 4.5 Lakh to be able to buy 15 air tickets to Bangkok. As all the players and their wheelchairs cannot be accommodated on a single flight, this seemingly simple booking is a logistical nightmare. To put things in perspective the recently concluded IPL auction had teams spending a whopping Rs. 321 Cr for a single edition. 

According to the 2016 census, India has almost 2.7 crore people who live with disability. Of this number, around 55 lakh are movement related including almost 21 lakh women. All the players, administrators and coaches gave personal testimony of how this sport had changed their lives, enabling them to live with independence and dignity. This sentiment is best captured by Rekha, who at 16 was the youngest player to be selected for the Indian team, “Lot of people with disabilities are stuck at home thinking they can’t live a normal life but I think that people like me are even better than normal people as we can do many things that they can’t. Nothing is impossible for us. Girls who want to study, play or do anything should get support from their families to get ahead.”

For 7 hours a day for the duration of the selection trials, the women were put through the paces by the two coaches, who were also the selection committee. Here, in one of many strength exercises, they race in fours with one player pulling three others - a tough task when even moving a single wheelchair is hard work.

Hindu Alayamani (centre) leads the shortlisted candidates in stretches, something that all top flight athletes regard with great seriousness.
Hindu Alayamani (centre) leads the shortlisted candidates in stretches, something that all top flight athletes regard with great seriousness.
Nisha Gopalakrishnan from Kerala and A. Kanagalakshmi from Tamil Nadu attempt to pull each other in opposite directions as part of their warm ups.
Nisha Gopalakrishnan from Kerala and A. Kanagalakshmi from Tamil Nadu attempt to pull each other in opposite directions as part of their warm ups.
Procuring high quality sports wheelchairs has been a constant challenge with no manufacturers anywhere in India, putting the players at a great disadvantage compared to other countries’ teams. The two suppliers based in India get their fabrication done in China with parts imported from the UK, most often at great expense and delay.
Procuring high quality sports wheelchairs has been a constant challenge with no manufacturers anywhere in India, putting the players at a great disadvantage compared to other countries’ teams. The two suppliers based in India get their fabrication done in China with parts imported from the UK, most often at great expense and delay.

At 16 and a half, Rekha (she prefers the single name), from Ghaziabad is the youngest player selected in this Indian team and was one of only two players accompanied by their parents. Her father is a master tailor for fashion designers in Delhi. Despite behind disabled from the age of one and having used a wheelchair for the first time just three years earlier, she’s already a rising star and one of the fastest on wheels in the team.

Kartiki Patel (34) from Mumbai is the team India captain and is currently doing an MA in social entrepreneurship. She was left with a severe spinal injury after a car accident in 2008. She says “I used to be a basketball player before the accident but there were no state level teams when I first started and very few women, so I switched to badminton and then came back to basketball when there were more players.”

Head coach of both the mens and women's team, Anthony Pereira, has been a parathelete since the early 70s with the armed forces. He was an engineer with the Madras Sappers during the 1971 Indo-Pak war and was injured in battle when struck by shrapnel, during the set up of a temporary tank bridge across a river. Anthony Das Pereira (68) lives in Pune, “although I was confined to a wheelchair I felt the need to do something so I started a new innings as a basketball player. As I’ve gotten older I felt a need to do something for people like me so I started coaching. I don’t take a single pie for this work neither do I ask for anything. So I’m trying to improve the game of these teams.”

Rough, calloused and dirt stained hands come with the trade of wheelchair basketball. Often, with no accessible toilets nearby, the women usually use a couple of buckets of water to wash their hands between sessions.

Tamil Nadu players share a laugh between sessions. Like most sports teams there is a deep feeling of sisterhood and support tempered by constant leg pulling and ensuing giggles.
Hima Kalyani B and Manisha Patil from Karnataka make the daily one kilometer trek from their hostel to the indoor courts, a journey fraught by potholed roads, crowds of students and trucks and buses whizzing by.

Rekha from Uttar Pradesh and Nisha Gupta (L) from Mumbai make their way to their daily selection sessions from their hostel braving passing trucks and buses. Gupta, one of the better players in the country was forced to miss the selections due to an illness caused by not drinking water for almost two days during her train journey to Chennai. She did not drink water as she was traveling alone and there was no way for her to use the toilets in the sleeper compartment.

Although the Sports Authority of India was not involved with team sports for the disabled they have recently entertained hope that the wheelchair basketball federation of India would be recognised by giving them space and minor funding to host a pre qualifiers camp at an SAI sports centre in Aurangabad.

An exhibition game that marked the end of the selection trials was flagged off by Chandra Kala R, from Hanon systems, one of the few team sponsors. Funding has been a tremendous challenge for the federation, so prospective and current sponsors are invited to exhibition games to see the players’ commitment first hand.
The coaches have the additional challenge of picking a team based on a classification limit of 14. Players are graded by independent classifiers from 1 to 4.5, with the lower limit for players with the most severe mobile disability.
Rekha, Ghaziabad, 3.0
Rekha, Ghaziabad, 3.0
Suchitra Parida, Orissa, 2.0
Suchitra Parida, Orissa, 2.0
Geeta Chouhan, Maharashtra, 2.5
Geeta Chouhan, Maharashtra, 2.5
Satyavathi Pandaranki, Andhra Pradesh, 4.0
Satyavathi Pandaranki, Andhra Pradesh, 4.0
Minakshi Jadhav, Maharashtra, 1.0
Minakshi Jadhav, Maharashtra, 1.0
Hindu Alayamani, Tamil Nadu, 4.5
Hindu Alayamani, Tamil Nadu, 4.5
Marilakshmi Lakshmanakumar, Tamil Nadu, 3.0
Marilakshmi Lakshmanakumar, Tamil Nadu, 3.0
Manisha Patil, Karnataka, 3.5
Manisha Patil, Karnataka, 3.5
Hima Kalyani Bandi, Karnataka, 1.5
Hima Kalyani Bandi, Karnataka, 1.5
Vinolia Violet Lawrence, Tamil Nadu, 3.0
Vinolia Violet Lawrence, Tamil Nadu, 3.0
Alphonsa Thomas, Kerala, 4.0
Alphonsa Thomas, Kerala, 4.0
Kartiki Patel, Maharashtra, 2.5
Kartiki Patel, Maharashtra, 2.5

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