Why I Play: Choo Poh Choon, wheelchair basketball

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Wheelchair basketballer Choo Poh Choon. Photo: Hannah Teoh

Choo Poh Choon, 35, has been playing wheelchair basketball since 2002. An accident during his national service shattered his spine, paralyzing him from waist down. Choo took to the sport because he played basketball in his younger days and enjoyed team sports. In December 2015, he and his team represented Singapore at the 8th ASEAN Para Games.

How did you get involved in this sport?
When I got injured, when I got my disability, I was told that we can still learn to drive so I want to get independent.  I think being independent for people in wheelchair driving is very important. If not we have to depend on taxis. At that point in time, buses and MRTs were not really convenient. So while learning to drive at the Handicap Welfare Association, I was told that there was wheelchair basketball.

[On the] first day when I was there to try out, I got to play. I thought that was pretty interesting. Because I played basketball before, ball handling was not that difficult. It’s just how to play in the chair that took me some time to get used to.

What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about wheelchair basketball?
That it’s dangerous. That we are very rough. I mean, if you want to play rough games, you should actually look at wheelchair rugby.

For us, even though there are still some clashes here and there, but you can see that we are actually pretty much controlled… [The falls] actually toughen us up, they actually make us feel more confident and stronger in terms of our own physical capability and disability as well - because we tend to learn how to adapt more and how to adjust ourselves.

Our waist balance actually gets better. Our upper body strength gets better. It improves our daily lives as well. We can actually move further rather than getting tired easier.

Choo Poh Choon switches from a regular wheelchair to the wheelchair made for competitive basketball. (Photo: Hannah Teoh)

You were talking about how it actually helps in your daily lives. So what kind of a workout do you get from this sport?
There are two things that I think it benefits me the most. First is upper body strength – we need to push more and for our shooting because it’s much lower, the rim is actually the same height as normal basketball hoop, but now we cannot jump, we cannot use our knee to elevate ourselves. To get the additional strength, we actually need to train our upper bodies to actually shoot better.

The second thing is waist balance. So for people like me especially, I’m a paraplegic, and I have very bad waist balance. But playing this game actually helps me because I start to control my torso better and I actually understand where is my balancing point now.

Choo Poh Choon gets ready to defend during a wheelchair basketball pickup game at United World College.  Photo: Hannah Teoh

In playing this sport, what has been your most memorable experience and your most heartbreaking?
Most memorable would definitely be the ASEAN Para Games (APG)… A lot of people are more aware of this sport. And there’s a lot of show of support from our fellow Singaporeans. Even though we didn’t win any games, at least we tried our best to play. 

The most heartbreaking was also last year’s APG. Personally for me, even though I expected the level of competition to be very high, I hoped that we actually would win one game. But unfortunately, the gap [between us and our competitors] is actually too wide. That saddens me quite a bit. Quite disappointed with myself, because I thought that, before the tournament I actually told myself: I have to run more for the team, because you know, they are much older, and this will be their last tournament.

I thought that I should do more as some form of parting gift from me to them. They actually helped me to become who I am today. So I want to do more for them. Unfortunately, that’s not meant to be.

Wheelchair basketball players meet every Wednesday at United World College from 7.30pm to 9pm.

What life lessons has the sport taught you?
Never give up – especially when you fall, you can just climb up. And this is really very true for us. Over the years, it’s not there are no [new] players that come in and try. Players do come, but they leave after a while, probably finding it’s too tough and because we have blisters, we fall. And some parents are worried and say, ‘Oh, it’s so scary, why does my son have to fall? You’re already in a wheelchair, why do you need to make yourself suffer so much?’

But this has actually taught me that even though we’re in a wheelchair, we can still climb, we can still get up, we can still move on. I think that’s the biggest lesson for me and that’s how it actually helped me personally as well, to help me overcome my own fear and my own uncertainty because of my injury.

Who is your pick to win the NBA champion this year?

Of course it’s the Golden State Warriors, come on. Just look at Stephen Curry. I mean, he’s god-like, you know. Nobody can compete with him. And their team is simply amazing.

People - even abled bodied individuals - curious to learn more about wheelchair basketball or to try playing the sport can join Poh Choon and the rest of the team on Wednesday nights and Saturdays at the indoor basketball court at United World College, 1207 Dover Road. Contact him here for more details.

The group that plays wheelchair basketball is also made up of able-bodied individuals curious about the sport.