Although he had the misfortune to lose his right leg in a childhood accident, Brian Bell had the good luck to grow up in the adaptive sports hotbed of Birmingham, Alabama. Blessed with first-rate coaching, equipment, and sponsorship support from an early age, Bell blossomed into one of the nation’s most sought-after wheelchair basketball recruits and, in 2016, helped Team USA win its first gold medal in nearly 30 years.
He’ll lead the quest for a Paralympic repeat in Tokyo, after first attempting to win a second straight title this spring with RSV Lahn-Dill, the LA Lakers of European wheelchair basketball and the defending champions in the German Rollstuhlbasketball-Bundesliga (RBBL). Bell hopes another gold medal might get Americans to pay more attention to his sport, which is played with about as much speed, muscle, grace, strategy and skill as the able-bodied version. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
When you joined Team USA’s wheelchair basketball team, there wasn’t a tradition of recent success for that program. What’s it like trying to build that from scratch?
We got the first gold medal in almost three decades. Knowing how long it had been, that gave us some extra motivation. Most of the US teams before us were good; it just didn’t work out for them. For the most part, from top to bottom, we’ve always had medal-contending teams. It just never used to work out.
That was our focus coming into Rio—we knew we had a great team, we just needed to prove it. That helped all of us come together as a group. We did a lot of things together on and off the court. The chemistry was a really big thing. Our practices were very competitive. We love each other, but we all want to win. So that helped us when we were playing against other teams. Coaches always preach that you have to practice the same way you want to play in games. If we had practiced with nonchalance, it would have showed.
Sounds like you guys went all out to beat each other in practice.
Yeah, exactly. Things got heated in some of the practices, and coaches definitely had to settle us down. At the end of the day we all still love each other, but these are very competitive guys. And that was the key—getting a bunch of competitive people together with a single-minded goal and having great chemistry on and off the court.
Heading into the 2021 Paralympics, you’re defending something now. How does that change the mindset and the motivation?
I feel like there’s even more pressure now that we’ve won something and we’ve got to defend it. I know the last major competition we had was the 2018 Worlds in Hamburg, Germany. We lost in the finals against Great Britain. That’s mainly because—well, we didn’t play well, but we also thought we were hands-down better than those guys. That’s the kind of mentality you can’t have. You have to play 100 percent all the time. You can’t just assume that another team is going to bow out and bow down.
It sucked, but it was kind of nice that it happened before the Paralympics, so we’d know there are other teams that are really close to us [in ability] that are just as hungry as we were leading into 2016. It kind of helped re-motivate us. You could see it in a lot of the guys after the loss in the finals.
If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, what would your 2020 schedule have looked like prior to the Paralympics?
We had a lot of games set up before everything got postponed. We were going to play GB a couple of times, Australia, Germany. We wanted to play some of the top teams to get a feel for where we were and where they are at.
Will it be possible to fit in some exhibition games this year before you head over to Tokyo?
The plan is yes, but it kind of depends on the pandemic and the restrictions. I think as of right now we are trying to host a[n international exhibition] game in the US. I don’t know if it’s gonna work out or not, but at the very least we want to have that leading up to the Paralympics. I don’t know if we’ll get to play in other countries, because other countries have higher restrictions than the US. I don’t know how that’s all going to play out. We would love to play games, but in the grand scheme of things we want to make sure everyone’s safe.
Are you returning most of the players who were on the gold-medal winners from 2016?
I would say out of the 12, we’re returning 10. Two guys retired, but we have a good core. And some of the guys who are replacing the two who left are really great additions. So we should be fine. We’re pretty strong, regardless of the two guys that we’re missing. But getting back together and getting down to practice again will be nice. We haven’t seen each other for a year and a half now, which is kind of weird. Normally we see each other on a regular basis.
Do you have concerns about that? You mentioned the chemistry of your team being so good heading into Rio. Have you managed to keep in touch in some form?
We try to stay in pretty good contact. We have a Facebook group that we constantly write in to check up on how people are doing. We’ve done a bunch of Zoom calls with everyone, so we can actually see each other’s faces. The coaches have set up a bunch of full-team Zoom calls so we can all talk and see some of the staff, see how they’re doing, find out what they want from us leading up until when we finally see each other at the beginning of the summer. The coaches call each individual player maybe twice a month, just to keep in touch and make sure that people are doing well.
Most Americans are still totally unfamiliar with this sport. How did you get started out in it?
I lost my [right] leg at around 10 years old, climbing around on the train, and I had to get it amputated. After I did all the rehabilitation and went back to school, I played middle school football on my prosthetic because I just loved sports so much. My mom worked as a nurse at Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, and they have a bunch of adaptive sports for people with disabilities. So when I was 12 or 13, I went there one Saturday, when they let people come in and try these sports. I jumped into a basketball chair, and I fell in love with it right away. The coach of the middle school and high school teams [at Lakeshore] was there that day, and he saw me and asked who I was. So that got me started.
Had you ever played wheelchair basketball before that?
No, never. I had never even heard of it.
Who did you play against when you were learning the game? Were there enough kids playing wheelchair basketball back then to put a league together in Birmingham?
There weren’t a lot of us. The junior high school teams were spread out across the country, so we got to travel a little bit. If the closest team was three hours away, you had to do that. If you really wanted to play, you had to have a support network to get to those practices and those games. We actually played teams in [Colorado] maybe once or twice a year. And then at the end of the season we’d have a national tournament, and all the teams around the whole country played in that.
I was very fortunate there was a team right in Birmingham. It helped with the Lakeshore Foundation being an Olympic/Paralympic training affiliate. That helped tremendously. They had all the equipment and all the personnel I needed when I was starting out.
At what point did you start thinking wheelchair basketball might become a bigger part of your life—more than just a childhood sport?
That started pretty soon. I was pretty quick to adjust to being in a chair. After a few months of coaching me, the coach at Lakeshore saw there was some potential there, and he got me in touch with Per4Max, which is one of the biggest companies in the US for making wheelchairs. They sponsored me a year after I started playing, so that meant I got a wheelchair that was pretty much custom-fitted for me. That helped my game tremendously, because growing up it’s kind of hard to get chairs. You’d have to have some type of medical insurance that covers it. and even then it probably wouldn’t cover all of it. So I was very fortunate to have that support and access at a young age.
Were there role models who you looked up to in wheelchair basketball? Any players who you could pattern your game after or envision your career path?
Well, my mom was one role model. Just seeing how hard she worked, being a single parent with two boys, and one boy who had his leg cut off and all the added stress that came with that.
Once I got into the wheelchair world, Miles Thompson was my high school coach growing up. He was an elite coach. He’s coached the USA national team and the women’s GB national team overseas, so he’s very accomplished. Getting his knowledge and that type of coaching right from the beginning, at a young age, helped my career tremendously. When I moved to college at the University of Illinois, I was coached by Mike Frogley. He was probably considered one of the best coaches at the time. He’s coached the Canadian men’s team to multiple gold medals. So, again, I was fortunate.
Pat Anderson, who played for the Canadian men’s team and also went to U of I and was coached by Coach Frogley, he’s considered probably one of the best players who ever played wheelchair basketball. I played against him when I was younger, and I could see all the ability he had, and I kind of wanted that. So I tried to tailor my game to be something like that. I knew I wasn’t as big as he was, but I wanted to tool my game to be more diverse, more multidimensional, and being able to do multiple things well.
From the footage I’ve seen, it looks to me like you do have one of those versatile, NBA-style games. It seems like you have a good outside shot, but you also set up inside the paint sometimes and can play big. How would you characterize your game?
In terms of able-bodied NBA terminology, I would say I’m probably closest to a power forward. But I’ve been on multiple teams throughout my career, so it kind of depends. On the US national team I’m probably one of the bigger guys, so most of my game is tailored for inside. But playing over in Germany, I’m more of a guard-type player. I do more of the playmaking, ball handling, shooting from outside. That kind of helps that I’m able to do both in different situations.
Since the translation between wheelchair basketball and NBA-style basketball isn’t perfect, does wheelchair basketball even use guard / forward / center position labels? Or do you have other labels for that?
There’s a class system that designates more disabled versus more abled players. The class system goes from 1 to 4—or it’s 1 to 4-5 at the national level. The 1 is usually the most disabled guy. He might be paralyzed like from the chest down. They’re primarily guards, and usually guys who set picks and go after steals. Then you get to the 2s and 3s. They have a little more mobility, so they’re most often shooting guards. Some of them can be power forwards. Then you have the 3-4s and 4-5s, and they’re the most abled players. They’re the guys who are usually bigger and go inside more, the centers and power forwards. I’m in the highest classification, the 4-5.
What’s your perception of why wheelchair basketball has such a big fan base in Europe, when it hasn’t quite caught on the US yet? All the teams in the RBBL have big followings, and there’s a lot of TV coverage. Could that happen in the US?
The biggest thing is that there’s money behind the sport here [in Germany]. There are people who are willing to invest in it. There’s promotion, there are sponsors. That’s the biggest issue that we’ve had in the US. It’s hard to find sponsors who can help grow the sport, get it more coverage and more exposure.
On top of that, in Europe there are fewer competing sports. In Germany the top sports are football, of course—well, European football—and European handball. Wheelchair basketball is like the third- or fourth-biggest sport. The fan base here is really big. Once fans see it and get involved, they stay with it for the long term. I know that playing here, there’s a long history and tradition behind the team.
If I were starting out today as a teenager in wheelchair basketball, do you think there’d be more opportunity for me today than there was 15 years ago when you were getting started out?
I think it’s getting more recognition. The word is getting out there more, so more people are aware of it. Rio 2016 helped a lot. There was a lot of publicity leading up to that. I did a bunch of interviews and stuff leading up to that, and they pumped a lot of money into advertising adaptive sports on top of the Olympics. Because that’s the biggest thing—we tend to get overshadowed by the Olympics, especially because we usually come afterwards. We’re also competing with the NBA, the NFL, MLB. There’s so many professional sports in the US that it’s hard for Paralympic sports to get a shot.
Road to Tokyo: Previous Interviews
Ezra Frech Feels the Love (Feb 24)
Nichole Millage Keeps It Flying (Feb 10)
Melissa Stockwell Stays the Course (Feb 3)
Hunter Woodhall Gets Back to Business (Jan 27)
Allen Armstrong Soldiers On (Jun 10, 2020)
Lacey Henderson Looks Ahead (April 22, 2020)
MeiMei White Video (Mar 4, 2020)