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Using basketball to break down barriers, promote inclusion and create a wealth of opportunities

Earlier this year, British Basketball saw its UK Sport funding cut from £7 million to £0, in a guillotine stroke that many feared would be catastrophic for the sport in this country. That is despite it being one of the country’s most inclusive and participative sports; according to the latest Active People Survey, it is the second most played team sport nationally, behind football. It has the power to inspire and unite future generations, with 70% of participants under 25 years old, and half of its players drawn from Black and Minority Ethnic communities, writes Will Norman.

Will Norman

Will Norman has represented Great Britain in blind football at two Paralympic Games: Beijing in 2008 and London 2012. He was introduced to the game by two University of Worcester lecturers, Glyn Harding and Dave Mycock, after joining the University’s Widening Participation team. He now works as a Copywriter at the University, and he balances this role with training alongside his international team-mates.

In the leafy suburbs of one Midlands city, the sport is not only thriving, it’s the centre-piece of a model that blends sport and education in an exhilarating mix that is breaking down barriers, promoting inclusion, and creating a wealth of diverse opportunities.

At the University of Worcester, national funding cuts and fears over their effect on the game have done nothing to dampen enthusiasm for the sport in all its many forms.

Worcester’s basketball odyssey began with an innovative partnership between the University and pro league team the Worcester Wolves. The City is now home to Great Britain’s wheelchair basketball squads, and is set to host the European Wheelchair Basketball Championships in 2015. Worcester is also the training base for both the GB men's and women's squads ahead of their Eurobasket campaigns in the running game, with the women playing their Eurobasket qualifiers at the University.       

Professor David Green, University of Worcester Vice Chancellor, is a strong proponent of the benefits of pursuing an inclusive sports policy: “Participation in sport is a wonderful way to make friends, learn crucial skills such as team-work and self-discipline, and improve physical health. Taking part is enjoyable, expressive and promotes inclusion in society. The thriving running game and wheelchair basketball programmes, based at the University of Worcester, which involve people at all stages and ages, provide marvellous opportunities for learning through sport. We look forward to extending and developing this work to other sports and creating the International Centre for Inclusive Sport over the next period.”

Wheelchair basketball is flourishing in the UK. The wheelchair game and alternative, mixed formats like Inclusive Zone Basketball (IZB,) allow ambulant and disabled players to take to the courts together, meaning that friends and family can share their love of sport regardless of their different abilities, possibly for the first time. As a sport, basketball has an almost unique ability to cross boundaries, surmount barriers, and unite people across a range of abilities, ages, and demographics.

Sophie CarrigillUniversity of Worcester Psychology student, Sophie Carrigill, was recently named as the captain of the Great Britain women’s Wheelchair Basketball team. She led her country in the World Championships in Toronto in June, when the team recorded their highest ever finish, at fifth.

She said she was feeling the benefit of pursuing dual elite sport and academic ambitions in an environment that is uniquely geared up to facilitate both: “Being based at Worcester has given me a great opportunity to be able to train with the team every day and to be fully involved with the centralised programme,” she said. “Trying to juggle work and training is tough, but there is a lot of support at the University.”

The Worcester model clearly is working well for the Worcester Wolves, who recently completed a league and cup double by winning both the British Basketball League (BBL) Trophy and the national BBL play-off final at Wembley Arena. Player and University of Worcester student, Will Creekmore, was also named as the BBL Player of the Year in the Basketball Journalists Association’s annual awards for the 2013-14 season.

Mick Donovan, Head of the Institute of Sport & Exercise Science at Worcester explains: “The innovative partnership between the University and the Wolves gives players with professional ambitions the chance to mix their sporting triumphs with educational achievement. But just as the Wolves players benefit from access to excellent educational opportunities, students at the University benefit from their close links with a pro-level title-winning side like the Wolves.”

Dorian Benjamin, a former Wolves player, graduated from the University of Worcester with a degree in Business, Management & Advertising in 2012. Dorian has since established his own company, Education in Sport Ltd. “Realistically, unless you’re a footballer who gets spotted at the age of 15 and never has to worry about learning ever again, you’re going to need grades and you’re going to need things that you can only learn in a classroom,” Dorian said. “I’ve grown up with people who had all the sporting talent in the world, but they didn’t want to learn, so they were limiting what they could achieve.”

It’s not just the pros who benefit. The University of Worcester men’s basketball team recently won the British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) title for the eighth time in ten years.

Worcester also has a student wheelchair basketball team to match the lofty ambitions of their GB stable-mates. The University has been instrumental in helping to pioneer the development of wheelchair basketball within the higher education sector, and this year claimed the inaugural national BUCS wheelchair basketball title; one of the first disability sport competitions to be included within the national BUCS structure.

Much of the University’s basketball activity is based at the new University of Worcester Arena, the UK’s first sports arena designed specifically to meet the needs of both ambulant and wheelchair athletes alike. It is the home of the University’s innovative disability sport degree pathway, as well as the Worcester Wolves. Great Britain Wheelchair Basketball were so impressed by the venue’s inclusive ethos, that they have made it their base for both the men’s and women’s GB squads in the run up to the Rio Paralympics in 2016. Both men’s and women’s teams have already enjoyed several internationals at the venue, which have been enthusiastically supported by enthralled sell-out crowds. The Arena is also the focus of the University’s schools programme, recently welcoming children from across the country who came together to compete in the national Inclusive Zone Basketball finals.

The latest addition to the roster, the senior’s club, is a joint venture between the University of Worcester, University of the Third Age, and the Worcester Wolves, and utilises basketball’s polymorphous nature to create a bespoke fitness solution for this age group.

As club co-founder, Roger Prout, explains: “Whilst many retired people play sports like badminton or bowls, basketball seemed to offer the chance to get involved in a team sport which is fairly straightforward to pick up and has the advantage for people our age of being non-contact, and one where the pace can be adjusted to suit different levels of mobility.”

The UK Sport funding decision may well have been cataclysmic for basketball in one sense, but as the Worcester model demonstrates, this is a fantastic sport, with a power to unite and inspire like no other. One dimension of the sport may have been delta a fearsome blow, but at the University of Worcester, basketball is flourishing, from the grass roots right up to the elite level. Whether with the pro-ballers in the Wolves, international GB wheelchair basketball stars, school children sharing sport together through IZB, or the seniors shooting some hoops for health, the sport is overcoming barriers, promoting inclusion, driving opportunity, and creating a whole new generation of sporting heroes.