Event participant seen at European Para Championship
Aug 13 2023

Mendel Op den Orth plays a final every day

As a philosopher himself, Mendel Op den Orth knows he runs the risk of thinking too much inside the lines. “That is the danger yes. But if you do it right, it pays off a lot, huh”, he laughed heartily after the orange wheelchair basketball players’ big win over Switzerland: 64-33. “We are doing super well. Tomorrow is our next final on the schedule.”

Op den Orth (27) loves being able to play the European Par Championships in his own country. Even more than many of his teammates, he longed to be able to show off his skills on home soil to friends and family. After all, Op den Orth has been playing competition abroad for years. And when most of the important tournaments take place across the border, many are unaware of his progress.

And they are big. National coach Cees van Rootselaar already praised Mendel after the first pool match. “He wasn’t the best player of the last European Championship and World Cup for nothing”, he said. That now wasn’t lost on anyone in the rest of Europe either. In recent years, Op den Orth was able to play for a Spanish club (BSR Econy Gran Canaria), then transferred to France (Metz Handisport) and last season played for Dinamo Basket Sassari on the Italian island of Sardinia. “I understand the surprise in others too, when I tell them that I play as a full-time professional abroad. Of course, it is also quite special that there are clubs and sponsors who want to pay you to come and play there.”

It does draw how much wheelchair basketball has grown over time in Europe. “And I even think there is still more room”, Mendel said. “It’s also an attractive spectator sport, including for television. A lot happens and it’s just a touch slower than able-bodied basketball. That actually makes the game more watchable.”

Wheelchair basketball, in his view, is also not a sport at all for people with disabilities, or as others say a ‘disabled sport’. “Well no, for us it’s not about the disability you have. The wheelchair is, just like the cross bike is a ‘means of transport’ for the BMX’er, a thing to move around the field in”, he said in an earlier interview.

In it, Op den Orth also praised the dynamics of the sport that he only picked up on the advice of others. Born without lower legs, Op den Orth learned to walk with prosthetics at an early age. With that, he played soccer, walked and shopped. He never used a wheelchair. “Until someone once advised me to play wheelchair basketball”, he said. An advice with great consequences.

Incidentally, Op den Orth is not yet completely sure of his sporting future. That depends very much also on the follow-up trajectory of the Dutch team. Possibly the Olympics will be reached. Then the focus will obviously be on basketball for another year. Otherwise, he wants to finish his studies as soon as possible. He already has his bachelors in philosophy and cultural anthropology, but now he wants to get his masters. Naturally, he prefers to attend the Olympics first. And that is certainly not a pipe dream.

With fellow center Mattijs Bellers, Op den Orth formed a very effective tandem against Switzerland. “Mattijs and I can read and write with each other in the field. We are both physically strong, can keep our opponents off us. Because Mattijs is so tall, he has a great overview. Moreover, he communicates very well.” That may come in handy in the coming matches, because there is a lot at stake.

After the first game against Latvia (70-37 win), national coach Cees van Rootselaar said he saved Mendel op den Orth for the second game against Spain: 58-52. Against Switzerland, the national coach applied that tactic again. In the last quarter the topscorers Bellers (19 points) and Op den Orth (16 points) stayed at the sideline, as they had been rested for quite some time in the first half as well. Through the quarter standings 22-6, 35-15 and 57-21, it eventually became 64-33.

The Orange approaches the tournament with eight finals to play. Five in the pool phase, three in the knockout phase. Although they started well with three wins, the group matches against Germany in particular (Monday) and thus Poland (Tuesday) are crucial. It will probably result in a better draw for the quarterfinals and a better route to the semifinals and possible finals. And thus also a possible qualification for the Olympics.

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