Cambodian wheelchair star B-Baller is an unstoppable force
It’s 11:15 a.m., and Sinet An is in his living room shooting an invisible basketball.
She plunges the ball into her stomach. Then his left arm lifts – the right hand holding the ball – and at the peak of his shot, his wrist juts out with a touch of Steph Curry grace.
Soak. Pump. Break. Soak. Pump. Break.
Sinet has spent the last year mastering his stroke, and it shows.
“If you’re not sure, look at Sinet,” coach Joe Higgins told the rest of the squad. “He is perfect.”
Sinet, 33, lives in the village of Chuuok, about an hour west of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Born with a disability that makes it extremely difficult to walk without assistance, she has been using a prosthetic leg since her teenage years.
She is also widely regarded as the best wheelchair basketball player in Cambodia. She is a staunch defender and the top scorer in Cambodia’s national women’s team. She is one of the main reasons the team, which is only three years old, has turned heads in recent international competitions.
Sadly, COVID-19, now in its ugly third wave in Cambodia, has put a headwind on them. The team can no longer train, compete or attend tournaments as before.
Instead, they practice online.
Twice a day, Sinet puts on a swimsuit and takes a seat in his living room. She puts her phone down on a table and logs into Zoom, where she sees the faces of gamers from all over Cambodia.
They practice sprints, ball handling and shooting. They talk about strategy. On Fridays, they train with Higgins, a warm but determined coach in Vancouver, BC, who works with teams around the world.
Sometimes Higgins puts Sinet on screen. His work ethic is legendary.
For her, basketball is a question of representatives.
“What made me acquire more skills, and better and better, is to train every day. And to learn all the principles, all the rules that we have to respect,” she said by through an interpreter. “And then train over and over and practice over and over again, to get better and better.”
About 150,000 Cambodians suffer from some form of disability, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
For many, the disability can be traced back to encounters with landmines or cluster munitions left over from past conflicts. These include the American bombings in the 1960s, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, and a civil war that continued into the 1990s.
Estimates vary, but according to the Cambodian Mine Action Center, some 4 to 6 million mines remain undiscovered.
The new factors of handicap, for young people in particular, are road accidents and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.
Wheelchair basketball, which the ICRC introduced to Cambodia in 2012, has spread organically – first among women and more recently among men. There are around 80 players in the country, up from 30 just a few years ago. There are three club teams, with more in the works. A national wheelchair basketball federation has formed.
There are subtle signs of a sport taking root. The Sinet team recently had jerseys made. They are Corvette red with blue trim. The words “Kompong Speu Golden Bees” adorn the middle section.
Why bees? Because the bees work together for the hive. Kompong Speu is a province located just west of Phnom Penh.
Basketball is hardly a panacea for challenges such as employment or mobility. But as the ICRC observed in other countries, basketball sometimes changes the way people with disabilities see themselves.
“When you see people playing sports now – and you hear them say that too – they really have energy for other things and are confident in other things in life,” says Denver Graham, a prosthetics specialist who has worked with the ICRC in Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan and now Cambodia.
Take Sinet. When asked what she does for a living, she replies, “I am an athlete.”
A paid athlete, in fact. The ICRC pays him a monthly allowance of about $ 135 per month to play basketball and, given his obvious aptitude for sport, to train him when needed.
She has a small business that sells soft drinks, she says, but it’s a side business.
Sinet first touched a basketball during training in 2013. She had never played sports before. Out of the group – all women – most had never seen a basketball game let alone played one.
Jess Markt, ICRC Sport and Inclusion Advisor – and himself a hoop – showed them the basics of the pitch. Shooting technique. Who passed. Communicate in the field.
They weren’t extraordinarily tall or athletic. But they learned quickly and were eager to improve. Especially Sinet, who seemed determined to master every detail of the game.
She soon trained three days a week with other players in her area. When possible, they mingled with a group on the other side of the country, in Battambang. (Today this team is called the Roses of Battambang.) Whenever a foreign coach came to lead a team, Sinet was there.
At the end of 2013, Sinet was a selected member of the Women’s National Team. In 2015, she was a captain and was going to international competitions.
They didn’t gain much. But Sinet took notes. “They are so good,” she recalls thinking. “Like Japan, the Chinese, the Americans, they all play really well, and I can learn from them.”
In November 2019, the team traveled to Thailand for the regional Paralympic qualifiers. The women were motivated for the game against Afghanistan. Cambodia had approached them but had never beaten them.
“I remember them flying around the pitch, using great concepts of teamwork of setting choice, team defense, communication,” said Markt. “The Cambodian players have worked so well as a team.”
They won: Cambodia 38, Afghanistan 32.
After their victory, the women huddled for a moment. It was a landmark victory.
“Everyone cried,” said Doung Reaksa, who plays the role of goalkeeper. “Because – emotionally, we can win. We can be successful.”
Unfortunately, the team has not played an international match since.
For most of 2020, COVID-19 has not been hugely disruptive in Cambodia. Confirmed cases rarely exceeded 15 or 20 per day. Sinet and her teammates were still training three days a week.
Since February, more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been identified locally, helping to push the number of daily cases to thousands.
The confinements were swift and severe.
Sinet didn’t even have time to collect his equipment from his rehabilitation center, like his sports wheelchair or his weights. (She only uses the wheelchair for basketball and otherwise uses her prosthesis and a crutch to get around.)
But she had a phone.
Soon she was practicing virtually.
These days, Sinet joins dozens of other Cambodian players on Zoom to train twice a day, six days a week.
Cambodians lead most of the practices. But on Friday morning, the group trains with Higgins, who zooms in from Vancouver.
Higgins likes to highlight practices with music. Sometimes it’s Bryan Adams. Sometimes it’s the self-tuned rhymes of the Khmer rapper VannDa.
Basketball may not seem like something you can train online.
Higgins, who coached wheelchair basketball for 35 years, loves it.
This “allows us to have weekly contact and work on small details,” he says. “Now that I have done it, I would never go back.”
In fact, during the pandemic, he did Zoom workouts with players in a dozen locations. Some are engines of sport, like Canada. Others are just getting started, like Bangladesh and the Gaza Strip.
He created a YouTube jump showing how players around the world practice specific skills: cutting, layups, U-turns.
Of course, many people stuck at home do not have access to a basketball or sports wheelchair or even weights. Higgins emphasizes working with what you have.
In Cambodia, some actors made weights from cement blocks and PVC pipes. A player does not have a ball, so he shoots a coconut.
Sinet says practicing online has pros and cons.
Using Zoom can be a struggle. Live video practices can heat up your phone.
But she also developed a 5 minute shooting routine. It includes shooting with a basketball and shooting without a ball. As Coach Joe says: It’s the form that counts.
His stroke became so pleasant that Higgins requested a video he could share.
Sinet can’t wait to get back on the court. She wants to reconnect with her teammates and pick up where they left off.
She is a woman of few words. Yet a competitive fire blazes in his eyes.
I ask her what she thinks the team needs to improve. “First, we need to feel more confidence in the team,” she said. Meaning: teamwork.
Make a guess.
“Second, we need to do more practice.”