James MacSorley

James MacSorley vividly recalls the day he first encountered the sport that would transform his life. His parents had taken him, then six, and seven-year-old sister Eimear to the Knights Wheelchair Basketball Club in Antrim. Both children had been born with spina bifida, a condition which allows them only partial use of their legs, and their parents hoped taking up the sport would help them to live life to the full.

It was hardly love at first sight for James though.

“I remember pushing into the room for the first time, not knowing what to do”, he says. “It was very hard at first. I was tiny and the ball was very big!” The skills needed to manoeuvre a wheelchair, dribble and pass a ball were tough for a young child to take on.

But there were important benefits too. “It was the first time I had been in a room with other kids with disabilities who looked like me and my disability disappeared”, James says.

Both James and Eimear, who was part of the GB’s women’s team that contested the Wheelchair Basketball World Championships in Canada in 2009, have achieved much in the sport but it was not just the sporting aspect that was important.

“Over time I saw older members of the club, senior players, who lived full lives with partners, children, jobs. I knew if I worked hard, I too could have a successful life”, James says.

Photo credit BWB/SA Images

Today James has scaled the heights of wheelchair basketball, having been part of the GB team that won gold at the World Championships and, more recently, bronze at the Paralympics in Tokyo. But he acknowledges it would not have been possible without the support of the Knights and particularly head coach Jason Kennedy, along with his parents. Tragically, his mother Anne died in a car crash in 2005, before his greatest achievements in wheelchair basketball.

It was a long road to the top but, gradually, he began to master the sport.

Photo credit BWB/SA Images

“It’s twice as many things to manage with half the limbs,” James says. “You have to manage the wheelchair and dribble the ball without legs to propel you, mine are no use to me on court. You also learn how to work in a group. Now that I coach kids myself, I realise how important it is to have fun too. The great coaches I had, like Jason Kennedy, made it fun enough for me to stick at it until I was good enough to really enjoy the sport.”

James recalls the day Kennedy, a key influence in his career, told his father that he had what it takes to make a success of wheelchair basketball. This was around the age of 15 and James was about to attend a training camp in England with the Under-22 GB team coach. 

“By this stage I was basketball mad and four days of playing, eating and sleeping basketball really appealed. I was then asked to come back to an invitation only camp and stayed on that track. I knew then I could be ok at the sport.”

Gradually James moved up the ranks, travelling to the Under-22 European championships in 2012 with the GB team. That year he was one of eight flagbearers at the London 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony, an event he credits with making huge strides for disabled sport.

Photo credit BWB/SA Images

Meanwhile, he continued playing for the Knights, while taking a degree in Spanish with Law at Queen’s University before leaving to play for the Sheffield Stealers in England. The GB team was centred at the club and James was able to train under the GB senior head coach.

 A year into his Sheffield stint, James had made such substantial progress he was selected for the senior GB team, helping them to the gold medal at the 2018 World Championships. But though that, technically, was the ultimate achievement in his sport, James believes that winning bronze at the Tokyo Paralympics in summer 2021 was even more special.

“In theory winning gold is the bigger achievement but the Paralympics is tied to a massive world event. It was strange because there were no fans due to Covid but we were playing in arenas built for many thousands and we knew how many people were watching on television.”

The reception at home was remarkable too and James found his profile had grown. “There was increased interest in me as an athlete and in disability sport in general. I’ve tried to use that for good and point people in the right direction, pushing disability sport. I’m immensely proud to be from our small corner of the world, to represent Northern Ireland and disability sports.”

James is now living with wife Anna in Bilbao, where he plays professionally for Bidaideak Bilbao Bsr in Europe’s most competitive wheelchair basketball league.

He credits his parents, sister Eimear and Anna for their support in getting him to where he is today but is also very grateful for the long term help he has received from Sport NI, Disability Sport NI and the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland amongst others. He advises others to go down the same route.

 “If you want to get involved in disability sport go to the Disability Sports NI website and get in contact to find out what is available. It can change your life.”