World-class basketball in Zwickau

One hour left until the start of the game in the National Wheelchair Basketball League. In Zwickau’s Scheffelberghalle, the first spectators arrive, clad in RSC green and clutching supporters’ scarves. This is a popular event attended by whole families from Zwickau. The ladies of the club have laid on a buffet of home-made cakes, mini sausages and sandwiches. The rising stars from SGK Rolling Chocolate Heidelberg are the guests here today. But the clear favourites are home side RSC as multiple German champions with an international reputation. RSC-Rollis Zwickau rank among the top ten teams in the world. Two hours later, they win by a clear margin of 85:62.

For us it’s about more than just sport

Wheelchair basketball is a comparatively new sport. It began around 60 years ago when GIs wounded in the Second World War refused to give up playing their beloved game. Since then, wheelchair basketball has become a Paralympic sport with a growing fan base. It nevertheless remains a niche sport in many regions. “But not in Zwickau,” says Erik Fischer of the RSC club board. People in Zwickau love the Rollis. Their popularity is clearly demonstrated by strong supporter interest and measured by the celebrity status players enjoy locally. When asked about RSC’s recipe for success, Fischer says: “First of all, we regard wheelchair basketball as a highly skilled amateur sport and treat it accordingly.” The players enjoy extensive all-round support. “Zwickau has a good reputation within the sport because it’s not just about the team’s results for us – we focus on the individual athletes too,” says Fischer. Support ranges from excellent training conditions to physiotherapeutic treatments and assistance with their personal life. If international players come here with their partners, for example, the club takes care of visa extensions and even looks for suitable jobs and nursery places for their children.

Committed and well connected: the presidential duo

Mario Pecher and Kerstin Nicolaus have a very special interest in the team. Both are members of the Saxony state assembly and are well connected in the region and throughout the area. This presidential duo leads the RSC with passion, commitment and typical Saxon warmth. The second element in the Zwickau recipe for success is a high level of sporting achievement. Starting this season, the Zwickau squad has been coached by Sinclair Thomas, former co-trainer of the British team. Thomas used to play the sport himself and he and his team won the bronze medal at the 2004 Paralympics. RSC-Rollis Zwickau is an international team that includes sportsmen and women from four different countries. The third element that sets this wheelchair basketball club apart from other clubs in Europe is that the town of Zwickau has a targeted sports promotion programme which fully includes wheelchair basketball, in addition to handball and football. The town financed the supporters’ stands in the Scheffelberghalle, for example. The club covers its other costs using funds raised from sponsors in the local business community, and the board works tirelessly to pull together a six-figure annual budget.

I’d rather play in Zwickau than sit on the bench in Istanbul

Dresden-born Frank Oehme, 29, has been part of the team since 2006. As a member of the starting five, he is one of their top players. He says: “We play at an international level here in a professional environment. The size of the town makes no difference to me.” He explains that many players are understandably attracted to large, rich clubs like Galatasaray Istanbul. But it’s often the case that talented players then end up spending the whole season on the bench, he says. “There can only be five players on the court at any one time. So I’d much rather be actively involved in the game in Zwickau than stuck on the bench in Istanbul,” says Oehme, with a twinkle in his eye. His American team mate, Joseph Chambers, who has been back in Zwickau since the start of the season, says: “I love the team and I love the town.” Chambers has returned from California and is a former top scorer who played for RSC in the season before last.

Almost all of the players live in the same building, which Zwickau’s municipal building and property organisation (GGZ) has provided as a sponsor. It’s great for foreign players because they can settle in much more quickly and soon feel at home in Saxony. It’s also excellent for building team spirit. Just like a big, sport-mad family in fact.