The sounds that echo down the tunnel to greet me as I enter the Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre are all too familiar.
The thud of basketballs bouncing on hardwood. The rip of nylon signalling shots on target. The less satisfying clank of balls on the ring of those less so. The enthusiastic shouts of players pumping up their teammates prior to the match.
If I close my eyes, I could be in any basketball stadium anywhere in the world.
That is, at least until I emerge from the tunnel into what looks like a parking lot for the Tour de France. Spare wheels are everywhere, people are carrying pumps and mechanics are making frantic last minute adjustments to a sea of chairs.
Of course I’m not here to see just any old game of basketball. This is the opening match of the Rollers World Challenge and the two best men’s wheelchair basketball teams on the planet are about to get it on in a rematch of the Beijing Paralympic gold medal game.
I’m the first to admit that I haven’t seen a lot of live wheelchair basketball. Sure I’ve watched it on TV and I cheered on the Rollers and their female counterparts, the Gliders, during the Paralympics. Beyond that however the limit of my experience has been occasional glimpses of exhibitions at NBL halftimes, so I’m not quite sure what to expect as I take my seat.
Seeing an ABC TV technician adjusting a tiny camera – ‘Roller-cam’ - on one of the players’ wheelchairs doesn’t help me back into my comfort zone much either.
As I settle in to watch the warm-up, the speed and agility with which the players can manipulate their chairs amazes me. As the Rollers do some weave passing drills, the dizzying pace and constant near collisions reminds me somewhat of rush hour somewhere in the middle of Rome.
I turn my attention to the Canadian team and a colleague mentions that they look to have the size advantage on Australia. She has a point if the Herculean figure of their number 15 is anything to go by. David Eng was a member of the team the Rollers upset for gold in Beijing. With his shaved head, massive arms and chiselled physique, he could easily be a lumberjack back home in the Canadian wilderness rather than an athlete.
There must be something about the number 15 as his counterpart on the Australian team, Rollers captain Brad Ness, is also one seriously big unit.
The teams are introduced to the crowd, the Canadians to polite applause and the Australians to proud cheers. They line up for their respective national anthems at centre court and I watch Rollers superstar Troy Sachs proudly mouthing the words of Advance Australia Fair. As a five-time Paralympian there is little doubt he has the lyrics down pat.
As the music to ‘Oh Canada’ fades away, the teams roll past each other to finish their warm-ups. Despite this being a heavy-weight title fight between two great champions, there is no stare down. Rather, eye contact is avoided, as the sides focus only on their own preparations.
The ball is tipped and Ness opens the scoring inside for Australia. Parked in the paint with the ball upraised to shoot, a pair of smaller Canadians desperately claw at his super-sized arms. He ignores the pressure, casually shrugging off the defenders like a pair of pesky younger cousins to comfortably bank the ball home to cheers.
It might be early in the match, but Canadian coach Jerry Tonello is clearly pumped up. He pleads with the officials for a three-second call against the Australians and you could be forgiven for thinking it was the closing seconds of the game rather than just the third possession of the match.
Australian coach Ben Ettridge is just as focused but still takes time out to chat to the ABC commentators from the sidelines even with play in progress.
The Australian players too are talking on the sidelines – or rather chanting. On every defensive possession they yell “Rollers, Defence, Rollers, Defence” over and over again. The volume rises and the pace of the chant picks up as the shot clock winds down.
On the court the action continues unabated, with players using their chairs as rolling road blocks with reckless abandon. Wheels jam together as defenders sandwich offensive players in an effort to keep them out of the action. Metal and rubber collide with flesh. Players hit the deck as their chairs tip over, only to pull themselves quickly upright without a backward glance. In a number of cases, players actually get run over completely, like so much roadkill.
This is not a non-contact sport.
Just as bodies are taking a beating, so too are machines. At one stage, the game has to be halted as Canada’s Richard Peter has a quick pit stop on court to change a damaged wheel. Another time a broken spoke clatters across the pine.
It’s no wonder the chairs are feeling the strain. The players are doing things in them that are nothing short of astonishing. Going flat out on the fast break before stopping on a dime and spinning 360 degrees. Defenders raising themselves up on one wheel to challenge shots. Players actually bouncing their chairs off the ground. It’s highly unlikely that the person who invented the first wheelchair for King Phillip II of Spain back in 1595 ever had any of these in mind as intended uses for their brainchild.
As the game progresses, the Australians gradually pull away from Canada. Clearly the Rollers are a side with an exceptional team chemistry and it’s paying dividends on the court. As Justin Eveson seals the match with unerring accuracy from the free throw line, his teammates lined up around the key to rebound wheel in perfect unison to his side to offer high fives after each swish.
Fittingly, it’s Sachs who closes the game with a deuce as the Rollers take a commanding 66-37 victory to open the tournament.
The crowd, small but vocal, rises to give a standing ovation to the Australians. Like a green and gold snake on wheels, each of the Rollers glides in line past the referees to offer their hand before swinging gracefully to do the same to each of their opponents.
As the Australians gather in the centre of the court in a group huddle to celebrate, I ponder that this could well have been any gripping, physical game of basketball. Midway through the match, I’d ceased to focus on the apparatus and started to appreciate great athletes in action.
Perhaps my first impressions as I walked up that tunnel may not have been so off the mark after all.