Wheelchair basketball: How going abroad is shaping GB's top players

It's Saturday night in the Italian town of Seveso,  about half an hour's drive north of Milan, and tickets for the Coppa Italia wheelchair basketball semi-finals are the hottest in town.

The sport is big business here and the local Briantea 84 side are being cheered on by a fanatical home following as they put their title on the line.

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It's not like I am a disabled person playing sport. I am an athlete playing sport, who happens to be disabled

Ian Sagar

Key to their success are Great Britain internationals Ian Sagar and Martin Edwards. The tournament is a bit of a reunion for the pair - Briantea's semi-final opponents are Santo Stefano, who include their international team-mates Simon Brown, Lee Manning and Kyle Marsh in their ranks.

The other semi-final features fellow Britons Simon Munn, a five-time Paralympian, Ade Oregbemi and Richard Sargent, who all play for Sardinia-based Porto Torres.

Of the 27-strong Great Britain men's squad preparing for the World Championship in Korea in July, 19 players are based abroad, across Italy, Spain and Germany.

Sagar, who broke his back in a motorcycle accident aged 17, came to the sport as part of his rehabilitation at Sheffield Royal Infirmary.

"I was in hospital for four months and the first time I could get up after three months they rolled me onto my stomach and I was pushing myself around the hospital on this trolley," he recalled.

"There were some windows looking down over the sports hall and I could see some guys playing wheelchair basketball. I thought 'I want to have a go at that'."

Fifteen years later, he is in his second year at Briantea after spending a couple of seasons playing in Toledo in Spain, having started his career with his local side Sheffield Steelers. 

Having narrowly missed selection for the Great Britain team for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, the 32-year-old from Barnsley credits his time abroad with helping him develop from a fringe player into one of the team's starters at the London Paralympics and last year's European Championship, where GB won gold.

GB win thrilling 2013 European final against Turkey

"It is not like I am a disabled person playing sport," he told BBC Sport. "I am an athlete playing sport, who happens to be disabled. It is such a rough, tough league which just suits me down to the ground.

"You have to mix it with the best players in the world to see where you are failing. You can't get better without being challenged.

"In England, I felt I had peaked to the level I could. The top players in the world play primarily in Spain, Germany and Italy. The leagues there have a lot of funding and they can run professional outfits.

"Your training in Britain is based around the international set-up, rather than your club, so you might have to travel a couple of hours to and from training sessions.

"Over here, you are put up by the club, the sports hall and weights gym are nearby and you are training twice a day five days a week with the same guys in preparation for the weekly game.

"It is a lot more intense and physical. It is hard work, you have to be at it all the time and that brings you on."

Sagar, who won a treble of domestic and international trophies last season with Briantea, is flourishing on court but also off court with partner Natalia and children Max and Katya.

Ian Sagar

"London was heartbreaking and it still hurts now... My parents were in the stands and after the loss to the US I was so embarrassed I couldn't talk to them."

"People at home say I am living the dream over here," he adds. "It sounds nice but it is very hard work training twice a day but it is a good life.

"It is my job and my living and I wouldn't give it up for the world."

Despite GB coach Haj Bhania having less access to his squad, he knows his players are benefitting from the experience of playing abroad.

"In Britain we have a very talented pool of players and those who are abroad are thriving and recognised as an asset," he told BBC Sport.

"They are sought after as players - most are in their club's starting five and having spoken to their club coaches, they are appreciated for their work ethic and behaviour and that says something about the British set-up.

"It is a really valuable opportunity for them to play with and against top international players and learn from them, which is something they couldn't necessarily do if they stayed in Britain."

Bhania took over as head coach last year after working for a number of years as assistant coach and also with the junior team.

The elite men's and women's programmes were awarded £5.38m by UK Sport as they build towards the Rio Paralympics but he accepts that one of the big differences between Britain and the likes of Italy is funding throughout the sport.

"A lot of clubs abroad have private owners and big budgets and the British game just isn't at that stage yet," he says.

Wheelchair basketball lowdown

  • Played in 78 countries worldwide
  • First documented game played in November 1946 by group of veterans in United States
  • GB men's team won first unofficial World Championships in 1973 - first official World Championships held in 1975 in Belgium
  • USA have won six of the 10 official men's world titles; Canada (2006) & Australia (2010) the last two
  • Canada have won four of the six women's world titles since 1990, USA the other two
  • GB men finished fifth at the last Worlds in Birmingham but won European gold in both 2011 and 2013

"In the future we would aspire to having that sort of set-up in Britain and have top overseas players coming to us, but it is a while off yet. In the meantime we can still provide good coaching and develop young players to come through."

But Sagar wants to show the world this summer that the squad's foreign experience can help deliver a first World Championship medal since silver in 2002.

The GB players are hoping to challenge for gold after finishing an agonizing fourth in London where they lost the bronze medal play-off 61-46 to the United States.

As well as the USA, defending champions Australia will again be among the main contenders, but Paralympic champions Canada will be absent after they failed to qualify. Sagar hopes to seize on that opportunity.

"London was heartbreaking and it still hurts now. It was the best experience of my life but also the worst to miss a medal," Sagar confesses.

"My parents were in the stands and after the loss to the US I was so embarrassed I couldn't talk to them.

"I was ashamed because I had put my life on hold for three years to build up to the Games and given up my friends and social life. I don't want to experience that feeling again and the rest of the team feel the same.

"Now is the time for us to step up. We haven't played Australia in a competitive tournament for a while and I can see chinks in their armour. They are ready for the taking. I want a medal and I want to win."