Less than 24 hours after John Licht lost his right leg in a car accident, the Dutchman realized – lying in a German hospital bed – that self-pity would not get him there. Less than a year later, Licht was a member of the national wheelchair basketball team. And now, nearly 50 years later, he is one of the carrying forces behind the sport in the Netherlands. “Giving up is not an option. Not then, not now.”
Say wheelchair basketball, you say John Licht. Everywhere and nowhere he pops up in the Netherlands. First as a player, then as a trainer and coach, but also as team manager, trainer, inspirer and – at events like the European Para Championships – as floor manager. “This week I am responsible for everything that happens on and around the playing floor. Except for the scoring, that’s up to the players, the referees and the judges’ table.”
Light, moreover, to his own surprise, was suddenly the center of attention himself Monday night. On the floor. He, like fellow centipede Wim Ludeke, received the Rob Verheuvel Award, for his services to wheelchair basketball in the Netherlands. Listening to his story, one cannot help but conclude that this election was deserved.
Just before the start of the final group game of the Dutch men’s team against Poland, which was won 73-61, Licht does have some time and talks glowingly about his mission to get more disabled people playing wheelchair basketball. Between 400 and 500 men, women and children play the sport in the Netherlands. It is no exaggeration to say that Licht knows almost all of them, and that he even taught many of them their first tricks. Several players on the current Dutch team also had their first experiences with wheelchair basketball with Licht. “I think that’s great to see. My heart opens up completely then. To me it is always proof that they have listened well to what I always say at the introduction: ‘can’t’ doesn’t exist.”
Light calls it his golden rule. At every clinic he conducts for (S)Cool on Wheels, he tells his own life story and then immediately explains that in his mind, giving up was not an option. “I was in the hospital in October 1974 after my car accident, had just lost my leg. But next to me was someone complaining and moaning enormously. He wasn’t as bad off, but he pitied himself enormously. Right then and there a switch flipped for me.” Once back in the Netherlands he was introduced to wheelchair basketball during rehabilitation. “And six months later I was on the Dutch team.”
The sport was a lot braver back then. Light: “If you even got close to your opponent, you already got a foul. The sport has become so much more physical, so much faster and more professional.” That makes it a ratings hit worldwide. “I get it, too. There are so many tactics in it, but also so much spectacle”, said Licht, who soon picked up coaching and training in addition to his career as a player. “I was one of the first in a wheelchair to also get the A license to coach.”
As far as he is concerned, even more fun than coaching and training advanced players is introducing young people to the sport. On behalf of the project (S)Cool on Wheels, of the Fonds Gehandicaptensport, he gives lectures for elementary school children from group 7 and 8. “We always start with theory, with my story. You then get the most wonderful questions. Children are very honest. Want to know, for example, how to pee when you’re in a wheelchair. I also just go to the toilet I then explain to them.”
Then, when the wheelchairs come out of his trailer, there is immediate enthusiasm and everyone would prefer to learn to roll and score as soon as possible. “That’s how it goes in a rehabilitation center, too. People quickly get the hang of it.”
This summer vacation, the priority is top basketball. Licht is a proud floor manager in Ahoy. “I really love what the organization has put up here. The whole entourage, it exudes something. Such a scoreboard above the center circle, for example, is insane, we don’t really know that most of the time. If you can set up the sport like that, it appeals to everyone. Then you do get full stands.”
Especially if the home country also performs well. “We don’t even have to talk about the women. They win the European Championship, World Championship, the Paralympics and then the World Championship again. I give them a very good chance now too. The Dutch men unfortunately just missed out on Paralympic qualification at the World Championships in Dubai with fourth place. They are, also thanks to the support of NOC*NSF, really on top now.”
In the final pool match against Poland on Tuesday afternoon, things will get exciting. After a 35-30 lead for the Dutch at halftime, the two teams creep closer together. At the beginning of the fourth quarter Poland takes a little distance: 52-58. After that, however, Dutch top scorer Mendel Op den Orth (28 points) stands up. With more than 10 points in a row, he first closes the gap and then makes the difference: 73-61.
With the Netherlands in Group A, Spain, Poland and Germany also advance to the quarter-finals. From group B, Great Britain, Turkey, Italy and France qualified. The quarterfinals will be played on Wednesday.
The Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain and Spain qualified for the semifinals in the women’s group.