Wheelchair basketball is brilliant fun - and a great leveller, finds STEPHEN LEWIS. It would be a real shame if the city's team, the York Sharks, had to fold...

NATHAN Baldwin's a demon on the basketball court.

He ducks and weaves like quicksilver, blocking my every attempt to get near enough the D to shoot.

Each time I race away down the flank, or dive through a gap in the opposing guards, there he is, popping up to bar my way.

It's hugely frustrating - yet brilliant to see.

Nathan, 23, has cerebral palsy. He can walk perfectly well. "I'm normally on two legs!" he says. But put him in a wheelchair and he can fly. "I'm certainly quicker in a wheelchair," he grins.

Especially in one of the light sports wheelchairs used by the York Sharks - the York basketball club in which able-bodied people (ABs as they're known) compete side by side with people with a range of disabilities.

I'm an AB (if a rather ageing and unfit one). It's my first time in a wheelchair, and as my feet and then legs are strapped firmly in place with velcro strips, I worry I'm going to find it constricting.

But actually the chairs are fantastically manoeuvrable. You can sprint, weave, turn on the spot - do everything, in fact, but jump. And because the sports chairs are so light, they make you yourself feel light too.

I think I'm doing pretty well until Nathan, who works in the labs at York Hospital processing blood samples, shows me how it should be done. It's as though the chair is an extension of his body. Every time I try to break away he's there, that apologetic smile on his face.

"Sorry!" I say for the umpteenth time as, unable to control my chair, I crash into him.

"That's OK!" he says.

York Press:

Stephen Lewis, left, takes on Pete Richardson, right, while Nathan Baldwin (centre) prepares to block. Photo: Mike Cooper, InkBlot Films

The thing about wheelchair basketball is that it is a great leveller.

The club was launched about seven or eight years ago, specifically so that people with disabilities could play alongside able bodied players.

Head coach Sarah Warriner originally joined because she could see wheelchair basketball was a game her whole family could play together: her mum, Sarah herself, and her three children.

One of those children - Hayden, now 15 - has the muscle wasting condition muscular dystrophy (MD).

"I liked the idea that everybody could play together," says Sarah. "That's why we started. We all came along together, and it was great that we could all play together."

The family quickly got hooked. Hayden's condition has now reached the point where he can no longer play - he's switched to power chair football instead, says Sarah. But his sister Erin, 9, and older brother Nathan Lambert (the second of the club's two Nathans) both still play. And after training as a coach, Sarah herself is now the Sharks' head coach.

The club meets two evenings a week in the gym at Fulford School. And I've come along to get a taste for myself of just what wheelchair basketball is all about.

As I quickly discover, it is brilliant fun.

After being strapped into my chair, I join other club members for some warm-up exercises. First of all, Sarah gets us sprinting end to end along the length of the court.

I soon discover there's a knack to getting up speed - you lean forward slightly in the chair, then use your arms to drive the wheels with smooth, powerful, downward strokes of your hands. To stop, you simply grab the wheels. To turn, you slow down a wheel on one side. To spin on the spot, you reverse one wheel, while going forward with the other.

I found 'dribbling' the most difficult. You're allowed two pushes on the wheel before you have to bounce the ball. I found trying to co-ordinate all the different movements difficult - and time and again my quicker opponents were able to snatch the ball out of my hands.

Nathan Lambert - Sarah's son and the club's star player - showed me how it was done, speeding away, holding the ball with one hand and tossing it nonchalantly into the air so that it bounced and he could scoop it back up again.

Shooting was also tough. The basket is at the same height as with ordinary basketball, and when seated in a chair it seems dauntingly high.

But we got plenty of practice. Sarah got us all doing 'lay-offs' - looping figure-of-eights in which we were passed the ball as we approached the basket, took a shot, then swept on past and circled back, picking up the ball that had just been thrown and passing it on to the next player.

York Press:

A York Sharks game. Photo: Mike Cooper, InkBlot Films

It was intense, absorbing - and excellent practice.

Then it was into a game. Sarah picked the teams, and we were off. Nathan Baldwin was given me to man-mark - and a brilliant job he did of it, too, blocking me at every turn.

Eventually, I did get a shot in - a rebound from my team-mate Nathan Lambert. To my surprise and delight, it actually went in - though I suspect from the reaction of everyone else that the whistle had already gone and it was a no score. That didn't bother me. It was a great feeling...

The game was intense and competitive - but played in a great spirit, with lots of friendly banter and high-fiving. And it was brilliant to see players like Nathan Baldwin being able to compete on a level playing field with everyone else.

Sadly, the club - which once played in the Third Division North of the British Wheelchair Basketball League - is struggling.

Playing in the league is expensive - up to £4,000 to cover the cost of the team, equipment, travel and so-on.

The York Sharks can no longer afford that.

They missed the league's last season - and some of their players have left as a result.

So now the club, which usually attracts about 14 or 15 players on a Tuesday night, needs both some new members - and some sponsorship.

It has some support already - a player from Minster Law, for example, has set up a Just Giving page.

But the club relies entirely on donations, plus the £3-a-night fee paid by members.

It really needs some proper sponsorship to help meet the £35-an-hour cost of hiring a court, and to pay for a storage container in which to keep all its equipment.

"If we don't get some funding, it could fold quite soon," says Sarah.

That would be desperately sad. Because this really is a brilliant little club.

For people with disabilities to be able to compete on a level playing with with able-bodied players is a huge boost to their confidence, says Sarah. "It's a real leveller."

It certainly is. Just ask Nathan Baldwin. If you can catch him...


The York Sharks meet twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at Fulford School. For this week only, sessions start at 7pm. From next week, they will start at 6pm.

Tuesday sessions are for serious training and a game. Thursday evenings are more about learning to play and having a fun knockabout.

York Press:

The York Sharks, with Erin Lambert, right, preparing to shoot. Photo: Mike Cooper, InkBlot Films

The club is looking for new members. Anyone is welcome, able-bodied or non able-bodied, from 5 to 75 and above, says Sarah.

It's a great way for children or adults with disabilities to build up their confidence, have fun and get some proper exercise all at once, she says. "There's nobody who ever needs to feel out of place here," she says.

If you're interested, just turn up on a Tuesday or Thursday evening - and bring your friends and family with you. You'll need a passcode to park at the Fulford School gym - just email yorkwheelchairbasketball@gmail.com in advance.

The club also needs sponsorship, to cover the £105 a week needed to hire a court for three hours, and the £50 a month for renting a storage container. Then there are the wheelchairs, which cost at least £1,500 each.

"It would be nice to get some more kit," Sarah says, about the wheelchairs. But that's a secondary aim. "The most important thing is to keep the club going!" she says.

  • To find out more about the club, or to offer sponsorship, email yorkwheelchairbasketball@gmail.com or visit the club's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/YorkSharksWCB/