U.S. Squads Enter Postponed Wheelchair Basketball Worlds With Medal Hopes
by Steve Goldberg
The U.S. men's wheelchair basketball team celebrates winning the gold medal during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 05, 2021 in Tokyo.
Six months delayed, the wheelchair basketball world championships finally tips off Friday in Dubai, and both U.S. teams enter the tournament as contenders following a gold medal for the men and a bronze medal for the women at the most recent global championship, the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Featuring 16 teams on the men’s side and 12 for the women, the world championships begin with a group stage before moving into a single-elimination bracket for the medals.
Here’s what to watch as the action gets underway in Dubai.
The postponement of the Olympic and Paralympics Games from 2020 to 2021 upended competition schedules across the sports spectrum. COVID-19 wasn’t the culprit for this delay, though. Instead, blame the FIFA World Cup.
These wheelchair basketball world championships were originally scheduled to take place Nov. 16-27, 2022, which would have put the event directly in conflict with the massive soccer tournament taking place just a few hundred miles away in Qatar. This, it was determined, would create “extraordinary conditions” in Dubai. So organizers, acting at the direction of the local government, agreed to push the wheelchair basketball event back to this summer.
The U.S. men are an experienced side with seven of the 12 players having won a gold medal in Tokyo, including Brian Bell, John Boie, Trevon Jenifer, Ryan Neiswender, Jorge Sanchez, Steve Serio and Jake Williams. New to the team are Talen Jourdan, Correy Rossi, Jorge Salazar, Fabian Romo and Jeromie Meyer. At 23, Jourdan is the youngest player on a veteran team that averages just over 30 years old.
Also new to the team as head coach is Robb Taylor, who serves in the same role for Auburn University in the NWBA’s Intercollegiate Division
Despite their recent success winning gold at the Rio and Tokyo Paralympic Games, the American men have not taken the world championships crown since 2002. That was their sixth title since 1975. Since not participating in the inaugural (yet unofficial) event in 1973, the U.S. has never finished lower than third (2010) in 12 world championship tournaments. Most recently, the team finished second in 2018 and 2014.
Steve Serio shoots against Team Japan during the men's wheelchair basketball gold medal game at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 05, 2021 in Tokyo.
“We’ve tried our best in the past and just haven’t been able to put it together at our world championship games,” said Serio, who is entering his fifth world championships. “But it has propelled us to be a little bit more motivated and focused on the things that we need to focus on heading into the Paralympic Games. Heading into this (world championships), it’s the same high expectations like we always have.”
The U.S. will open against Iraq on Saturday, then play Iran on Monday and Great Britain on Wednesday to close out group play. The American squad is sure to be highly motivated for that last preliminary game after falling to the Brits in the title game at the most recent world championships in 2018 in Hamburg, Germany.
The defending champs from Great Britain are back, and they’re coming off a Paralympic bronze medal in Tokyo. Perhaps more significant about this men’s tournament, however, is not just who is there but who isn’t.
Japan, the silver medalists in Tokyo two years ago, were knocked out of contention when several players tested positive for COVID at the 2022 Asia Oceania Championships, forcing the team to forfeit not just that tournament but also any opportunity to qualify for Dubai.
Turkey, which finished sixth in Tokyo, fell to the same fate as Japan, having to withdraw from the 2021 European Championship due to positive COVID cases within the team. Also absent is Spain, the fourth-place team in Tokyo, as it failed to qualify.
With those teams missing, Great Britain, Australia, Germany and Canada figure to be among some of the other medal contenders, along with Team USA.
The U.S. women finished a disappointing sixth place in Hamburg, but that was a much different team than the one that had conquered all in Rio two years prior. And this will be a different team than presented in Hamburg.
Only half the squad participated in both Hamburg and Tokyo, and none of them were Becca Murray. Arguably the best American shooter ever, Murray is a three-time Paralympian, two-time Paralympic gold medalist and 2010 world champion.
Well, Becca’s back, adding tremendous offensive firepower. In her absence, Lindsey Zurbrugg bloomed as an offensive threat, while Rose Hollermann is now among the best in the world, too. Hollermann made her Paralympic debut in the competitive crucible of London 2012 as a 16-year-old, where the U.S. finished fourth. Hollermann then won gold in Rio and bronze in Tokyo.
The U.S. women's wheelchair basketball team celebrates after winning the bronze medal during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 04, 2021 in Tokyo.
Christina Schwab was a leader on the court in winning three Paralympic gold medals (2004, 2008, 2016), and honed her bench skills as an assistant to Ron Lykins on the Tokyo men’s team. Add Natalie Schneider, a four-time Paralympian who was also on that 2010 world-title-winning team, and this U.S. squad brings a compelling mix of accomplished veterans and talented 20-somethings who could make up the core of Team USA for years to come.
The Americans come to Dubai with legitimate hopes of winning a medal, possibly a gold medal. However, the clear favorite in the women’s field is the defending world and Paralympic champions, the Netherlands. Following Paralympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016, the Dutch squad finally got over the hump in Tokyo and return top players including Mariska Beijer, Bo Kramer and Jitske Visser.
After the Dutch, there will be the usual suspects, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Japan and Team USA. In eight world championships to date, only three teams have won: Canada (five), Team USA (two) and the Netherlands (one).
There will be two women’s groups in the first round. The U.S. is in Group A and will play an advantageous schedule that opens with Thailand on Saturday, followed by Algeria on Sunday and Japan on Monday before the Americans close things out against Germany on Tuesday and the Netherlands on Friday.
The chief press officer for the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, Steve Goldberg covered every summer Paralympic Games from Sydney 2000 through Rio 2016 for various newspapers, magazines and online media. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.