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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Art and Science of Wheelchair Basketball


Published: September 8, 2008

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Minutes before the cries of “Box left! Box left!” fill the floor, before players collide in ferocious crashes of aluminum and titanium, and before his United States teammates continue their quest for the gold medal in men’s basketball at the Paralympic Games in Beijing on Tuesday, Paul Schulte will take a long, hard look at his opponents’ wheelchairs.

Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Paul Schulte, with the ball, scored 9 points for the United States in a 76-53 victory over Israel in a preliminary-round game Sunday at the Paralympics in Beijing.

Wes Frazer for The New York Times

Schulte and the U.S. team worked out at a pre-Paralympic camp last month in Birmingham, Ala.

Axle width, wheel tilt, seat angle, height — Schulte, the United States’ best Paralympic basketball player, can examine an empty chair and immediately discern its owner’s style, strengths and moves. All players know something about equipment, but Schulte has an almost eerie clairvoyance when it comes to wheelchairs.

For good reason. He has designed many of them. As a mechanical engineer for Invacare Top End, a world leader in the manufacturing of sports wheelchairs, Schulte has a unique role in these Paralympics: when the United States team is not carried by his play, it will be by his chairs.

“See, it all depends on your center of gravity, and how much control you want versus speed,” Schulte said last month, making a chair schematic spin in three dimensions on a computer screen. “You want maneuverability, but you want acceleration. And you have to take into account the forces on the joints of the chair and the shearing of the welds.”

Schulte scored 29 total points in lopsided wins for the United States over Israel on Sunday and Brazil on Monday in the preliminary round at the Paralympics. The team faces Britain on Tuesday, China on Wednesday and Australia on Thursday before the quarterfinalists are determined.

Meanwhile, Schulte has found himself pulled aside by several opponents in the athletes’ village.

“They’re asking me, ‘Hey, while you’re here, can you measure me for a chair?’ ” Schulte said with a laugh. “I have to tell them: Uh, I’ve got to go practice right now. But maybe later.”

This will probably be Schulte’s last chance for a Paralympic gold medal. He won bronze at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, then sat out the 2004 Games to focus on finishing his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington and developing his engineering career.

Schulte’s considerable name in wheelchair basketball had already been built at the quadrennial world championships. He was the leading scorer for the United States when it won gold in 1998. In 2002, he helped the team win gold again, making six 3-pointers in one game and being named most valuable player of the tournament.

The next year, Top End named a wheelchair after him, the Paul Schulte Signature Series Basketball Chair. It later hired him as a design engineer.

Schulte, now the United States team’s old man at 29, says he wants to build chairs that can stand up to the serious international game, which requires finesse and the ability to dole out punishment.

“Put it this way,” Schulte said with a mischievous glint in his eye, “picks are a whole lot more effective in wheelchair basketball.”

At the United States team’s pre-Paralympic camp in Birmingham last month, it was clear that most aspects of wheelchair basketball are the same as the able-bodied game: same court, same scoring, same rules against traveling. (Touching your wheel is the equivalent of taking a step.) Players run fast breaks, make backdoor cuts and flip no-look passes as often as in any sneaker-squeaking basketball game.

In wheelchair basketball, height plays a less obvious role, but players with longer torsos and arms often rebound and shoot more effectively. Because of this, players are frequently measured by their arm spans, not body length.

Chairs cannot move left or right, only forward and back. That makes defense a fascinating exercise of players’ positioning their wheels perpendicular to those of the ball carrier, allowing for more responsive movements.

Defense is Schulte’s strength. He can zip one way or another, stop and make half or full spins with such speed and precision that he and the player he is guarding look like synchronized swimmers. Beyond his 6-foot-5 arm span, he can perform the wheelchair player’s version of a jump — tilting his chair on one of its large wheels to reach a few inches higher and block a shot.

As the shooting guard for the United States team, Schulte has a deft outside touch but excels at spreading what can become a congested floor. During a scrimmage last month, he led a fast break down the left side, dribbled and curled around the left wing, then suddenly stopped, spun and zipped a one-hand pass to a teammate for an easy layup.

“He’s superfast, his chair skills are some of the best in the world and he sees the floor tremendously well,” United States center Joe Chambers said.

Coach Steve Wilson said, “Paul definitely takes his intelligence out onto the floor; so much of play is wheel position, forces and angles.”

And speed, which is what originally drew Schulte to wheelchair basketball. An automobile accident the day after his 10th birthday fractured a vertebra, bruised his spinal cord and left him with no feeling from his midthighs down. He tried crutches but hated their clumsiness. He eventually found he could go faster in a chair and do many of the athletic movements he already loved.

“My friends, when they played touch football, they made me the quarterback so I didn’t have to move too much — but they told me if I didn’t get rid of it in three-Mississippi, they’d come get me,” said Schulte, who grew up in Manchester, Mich. “They pushed me and helped me to enjoy sports again. They made it fun and made it cool.”

By high school, Schulte was distinguishing himself as a top-notch basketball player. He attended Texas-Arlington on a full wheelchair basketball scholarship; the university has one of the nation’s more advanced programs, along with Illinois and Arizona. The team won the national collegiate title in 2002, with Schulte being named the M.V.P.

Whereas able-bodied basketball players are generally stratified by height, players in wheelchair basketball use a formal ranking system, based on physical capabilities. Players cannot rise out of their chairs; they are strapped in tight, if only for the inevitable crashes. But different disability groups have varying levels of midsection muscle control, allowing for greater reach, leaning and hands-free steering.

A player who is minimally disabled, like a single-foot amputee with otherwise full physicality, is ranked a 4.5; the scale decreases in half-point increments to 1.0, for a player paralyzed from the chest down.

Schulte is a 3.0, but he is so technically sound that he can match up against 4.5s — not unlike a small forward who can guard a center.

Schulte says he takes players’ limitations into account when designing chairs for them. Moving the player’s center of gravity by shifting the seat height or depth plays a critical role in steering and speed. Depending on the players’ style of defense, they may prefer greater axle width or an extra back stabilizing wheel — something Schulte popularized in chair design.

“The most important thing is quickness, for boxing out and avoiding picks,” said Schulte, whose personal model costs $3,800 before extra adjustments. The cost appears worth it. Members of the Brazilian national team call Schulte Homem de Gelo, which is Portuguese for the Ice Man.

They do not seem to dislike Schulte too much, though. As Erick Silva of Brazil said, “He made my chair.”