A qualified basketball coach and official, Rebecca Orleans has been a wheelchair basketball table official for over 15 years, officiating at the UK’s biggest basketball and wheelchair basketball events, including the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
First getting involved with basketball whilst at school in North London, Rebecca achieved the Basketball Leaders Award during her BTEC National in Leisure Studies at college.
After moving to Birmingham in 1995 to study at University College Birmingham, where she graduated with a BA & HND in Leisure Management, sports development was a passion Rebecca wanted to continue to pursue, gaining her Preliminary Coaches Award.
But after falling out of love with coaching, Rebecca decided to start officiating.
“I still loved basketball and I wanted to stay involved, so officiating seemed a great way for me to do that,” Rebecca says.
Discovering wheelchair basketball
After discovering wheelchair basketball through talking to people involved in the running game who were also involved in wheelchair basketball, Rebecca began to officiate at wheelchair basketball games.
“The two sports are similar in some ways, but in other ways they are very different,” Rebecca says on going from basketball to wheelchair basketball. “It’s faster in many ways, but it’s the things you don’t expect that take you by surprise.
“When I heard a popping wheel for the first time that was definitely a sound that took me by surprise and I was like ‘wow, what was that?’ and the smell of burning rubber from the tyres on the floor when the players go past you is a smell that you can’t really describe.
“To be honest, coming into the sport, I didn’t know much about it, and I did have some biases. If they’re in a wheelchair, how can they play, how can they have the basket at the same height and how can they shoot three’s? I really didn’t know. I soon realised what an amazing sport it is.”
Rebecca hadn’t been involved in wheelchair basketball long when she was selected to officiate at the 2005 Junior World Championships in Birmingham. More home Championships followed, including the 2010 World Championships and 2015 European Championships, held in Birmingham and Worcester, respectively.
“They were scary but so much fun,” Rebecca says. “You get to meet so many friendly and encouraging people from all around the world. There are lots of referees, classifiers, technical delegates that I am still in touch with now from back at those competitions.
“Then when you meet-up again at another competition, it’s great to see them all again, there’s often lots of laughter, they’re great company, and we all make sure the games are officiated to a high standard. It’s a lot of fun.”
During an officiating career which has also included officiating BBL Cup Finals and senior international fixtures, there is one tournament that stands-out – the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“The Paralympics were on an entirely different planet,” Rebecca says. “Just the process you have to follow to get there, the rules and the video tests, is immense. To do one game would have been fantastic, so to do 13 was incredible.
“When you are there and, you’re in the bubble, it can be difficult to comprehend the enormity and vastness of it all, you get messages from people not really interested in sport saying they’re watching the games. And you think ‘wow, this is big’.
“It was a brilliant experience. I have got so many fantastic memories and to be part of the biggest sporting event in the world was amazing.”
Knitting through the challenges
Do officials feel pressure? “All the time,” Rebecca replies.
“As an official you want everything to go as smoothly as possible,” Rebecca adds. “I tend to sit before my games and try and stay calm and relax as much as I can. When I did my first major basketball final, I tried to do something before the game, and I couldn’t physically stand-up because I was so nervous
“Since then, I have looked at ways to keep myself calm, so I will usually be found in the stand or in a corner knitting or crocheting before the game, just to stay calm.”
Still involved in the sport 15 years after officiating her first game, Rebecca loves the family aspect of the sport.
“We are like a family and that can be said for the whole sport,” Rebecca says. “Wheelchair basketball is an environment that allows everyone to be involved in one way or another.
“As a dyslexic, I don’t always get it right, I do have to work on adding up the points, making sure the scores are right, take my time to check, and as a team we work through it, that’s the great thing about this sport and being an official we all support each other.
“Honestly, the community is unreal in wheelchair basketball, it’s something you can’t describe unless you’ve experienced it and I’m proud to be part of it.”
It’s a community Rebecca hopes more people will join
“If you want to get involved, you’ll be welcomed with open arms,” Rebecca says. “I have been lucky enough to have been able to officiate at some big tournaments, but you don’t just do it for the big tournaments, you carry on going because you enjoy the sport and there’s a legacy to be left.
“I don’t intend to be sat in a cold sports hall forever but if I have helped five, 10, 25 people qualify to become a table official and keep them enthused in what they are doing and then that’s the legacy I hope I can leave for others.
“If anyone is thinking about getting involved, I would say ‘just do it’,” Rebecca added. “I always come away from wheelchair basketball games enthused and full of positivity because the environment is just so friendly, it’s an important part of my life and so many others too.”
Rebecca has reflected a lot over the last few months, and she believes it’s important for conversations to be had around race and cultural differences.
“I don’t ever see myself as a role model, but I possibly am because I am one of very few black faces in both basketball and wheelchair basketball as an official,” Rebecca says. “I have never experienced any racist incidents or situations in wheelchair basketball that have made me feel unsafe or made me question why I’m doing it.
“But I have had experiences away from basketball. I’d get on the bus and people would grab their handbag thinking I’m going to nick it, or I’ve walked into a shop and I have been followed around the shop by security. All of those things are microaggressions that I have to experience on a regular basis.
“So, if I can go to wheelchair basketball and just be myself, with no microaggressions, no racism, no discrimination, I have got no issues. Wheelchair basketball is a real cultural mix, so it’s important we have conversations, and people need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable when having those conversations.”
To read more about Rebecca’s experiences, take a look at Rebecca’s blog: https://rebeccaorleans.wordpress.com/category/wheelchair-basketball/