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‘Why not us?’ may well be the Australian Rollers’ motto leading into the Paris Paralympic Games after they secured qualification with an eight-match unbeaten run to victory at the Asia Oceania Zone Championship in Thailand.

Australia’s men’s basketball team won three of their games by less than five points, including over Japan, Korea and the gripping final against Iran which ended 53-51.

The team is now set on recapturing the form that won them a Paralympic gold medal and two World Championships between 2008 to 2014.

“We’re currently ranked number seven in the world, which is not where we like to be,” said senior player Tristan Knowles, who led the tournament in three-pointers and assists.

“After the World Championships last year we made a lot of changes to our program, including a complete overhaul of our coaching staff. We’ve assembled a team of 12 players that we believe can achieve something very, very special.

“Our program has a proud history of success. When this group came together a few months ago with new coaching staff, our sights were set on reaching the top. We won’t feel fulfilled unless we become the number one team in the world.”

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Eighteen-year-old Roller Eithen Leard is on board. Leard said a pre-tournament camp at Paralympics Australia’s Melbourne base, The Hangar, was one of the keys to the team’s success. A feature of the camp, he said, was an address by Nick Morris, a member of the Rollers’ 1996 Paralympic champion team.

“He gave us a really good speech, talking about the Rollers successes in the past,” Leard said.

“Then he used the term ‘Why not us?’ and that really stuck with us for the whole trip. Why can’t it be us? Why can’t this be the start of that success again? It really got us up and about.”

Leard praised new head coach Brad Ness for working around the players’ individual skills and fostering a strong team connection.

“We won a couple of games by small margins and you need to have a team that really sticks together to be able to do that,” Leard said. “This was one of the closest teams I’ve been a part of.”

Surely also one of the best.

“It was surreal to be playing alongside Shaun Norris, Tristan Knowles, Jannik Blair, Tom O’Neill-Thorne … when I was a kid these were the guys I was looking up to. I idolised these guys and now I’m playing with them and we got ourselves a ticket to Paris.”

Another seasoned Roller, three-time Paralympian Bill Latham was a star of the tournament, hitting 15.6 points per game and 12.4 rebounds.

“We came here to do one thing and that was to get us tickets to Paris,” Latham said. “We got the job done together and I couldn’t be happier.”

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Coach Ness said he became emotional after the team won the final.

“It’s just relief more than anything,” he said to Basketball Australia.

“Each game was tough and we came away with some really close wins, but the boys never went away from the process that we had in place to win.

“They came up with a motto ‘Why not us?’ We’ve defeated the silver medalists from Tokyo 2020 (Japan) and we’ve just beaten the third-best team from Worlds (Iran), not once, but twice. So, I wholeheartedly believe it – why can’t it be us?

“We’ll head home and plan out the next six months, continue working hard and then head to Paris with the firm belief that we can be number one in the world.”

The Rollers join Great Britain, Spain and the US as Paris qualifiers with the remaining four places up for grabs at a repechage event in France in April.

The Australian women’s team, the Gliders, took bronze at the AOZ Championship, earning them a place at the repechage tournament where they have been drawn in Pool A alongside Algeria, Germany and Thailand.

By: David Sygall, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 24 January 2023
Image: Basketball Australia