Brian Bell overcame a nightmarish childhood injury to carve out a dream for his young family. At 26, he is one of the premier wheelchair basketball players in the world. Bell currently stars for an elite team in Milan, Italy — Briantea 84 Cantu. The team was founded by Alfredo Marson after his son became paralyzed. In Bell’s first season with the team, the squad from Milan won the championship of the Italian league.
Wheelchair basketball is an increasingly popular sport in Europe, where most countries have professional leagues. “It’s the third most popular sport in Germany,” Bell said. There are 20 teams in Italy, supported by sponsors and generous owners like Marson, who invest their own money. Bell is coached by the very lively Malik Abes.
“He says he’s from France,” Bell said, which would fit with the international character of the team. The roster has players from Spain, Lithuania, England and Italy. It also has three Americans, including two of Bell’s teammates from his University of Illinois squad. “I asked my teammates about playing in Italy. They told me the team had elite players and the pay was decent.”
Bell had been an outstanding player in college, scouted by pro coaches. He was heavily-recruited to play in Europe and chose to reunite with his college buddies. The team plays in a stadium in Milan, where average attendance is 2,300. Thanks to the owner, admission is free. “We have very devoted fans,” Bell said. “A lot of them are kids.” He signs autographs and poses for selfies after games. Bell’s likeness graces many Facebook pages.
He’s also a celebrity at malls and wishes he spoke Italian, so he could converse with the fans he encounters. Bell’s wife, Diane, also does not speak Italian. Diane Burdett grew up in Forest Park and met Bell at college. The basketball star asked her to bake something for him and she did it in exchange for using his laundry facilities. They’ve been devoted partners ever since.
Bell grew up a long way from Forest Park — in Birmingham, Alabama. At the age of 9, he was heading to a park with his friends, when they were blocked by a stopped freight train. “I got impatient,” Bell recalled, “So, I tried to go over the top. The train jolted, I fell and it rolled over my right leg.” Bell’s leg was cut off just below the knee.
Fortunately, Bell had his mother, Louvenia, to support him through the crisis. “My mom was always behind whatever I wanted to do to become a better person.” After Bell rehabbed for two months, Louvenia, a single mom, home-schooled him. Bell’s friends also rallied around him, visiting him in the hospital and encouraging him during rehab. “I didn’t go into depression like many do,” Bell said, “I put 100% into rehab.”
Two years after the accident, Bell visited a Paralympic facility.
“I went on a Saturday and fell in love with wheelchair basketball,” he recalled. The game appealed to Bell’s competitive nature and his love of team sports. He also tried middle school football with his prosthetic leg but “couldn’t move as well as I wanted.” In 2007, Bell left Birmingham for Champaign-Urbana, where his Illini squad won two league championships.
“I knew right then I wanted to play overseas.”
Two years ago, Bell, his wife and their 1-year-old daughter, Kaylan, moved to Cesano Maderno. It’s a suburb of Milan, with 37,000 residents. Their town is so close to the Swiss border, they can go there to shop. Moving to Italy, though, has been a bit of a culture shock. Being a stay-at-home mom, Diane was feeling somewhat isolated. She couldn’t converse with the neighborhood moms and found a few inconveniences.
These included the lack of window screens, fans and air conditioners, in a region where 90-degree summer days are common. She also missed having a clothes dryer. Like the other woman in the neighborhood, she put her clothes out to dry in the sun. Her laundry problems were compounded, when the couple had their second daughter, Lia, who is now 6 months old. However, being surrounded by alpine beauty and savoring Italian food and wine makes living in their adopted country very pleasant.
The Bells live in an apartment building, where several of his teammates reside. He is very tight with his basketball buddies, sharing meals and going out for drinks after games. Thankfully, everyone on the team speaks English. On a typical day, Bell drives to practice in the morning then returns in the evening for an 8 p.m. game. To accommodate his muscular 6-foot-1 frame, the kids and all their equipment, the family drives a Lexus. “It’s the biggest car on the road,” said Diane, noting that many things are smaller in Italy, including vehicles.
Bell also has a nice set of wheels for basketball. “The wheels are slanted for turning,” he explained, “And there are wheels in back for stability. It’s sturdy but lightweight.”
Wheelchair basketball teams do not have set positions, though Bell considers himself a shooting guard. The team on the floor is assembled according to ability. “I’m a 4.5,” Bell said, “the highest ability. The team is allowed to have 14 points maximum on the floor.” Some of his teammates are not fortunate to have both knees like Bell, or they have more severe physical limitations. So coaches put together set groups, much like hockey coaches form scoring lines. In fact, wheelchair basketball has speed and exciting back-and-forth scoring opportunities, also similar to hockey.
A YouTube video of Bell’s team shows how fast-paced the game is and the amazing feats performed by athletes with disabilities. Bell is one of the top three-point shooters in the world. He averages 40% from behind the international line, which is just inside the NBA arc. Shooting from a sitting position, his accuracy is astonishing. His lofty offensive numbers are even more remarkable in a sport that is primarily a defensive game.
All the rules of able-bodied basketball apply to wheelchair basketball. Fouls are assessed for physical contact, or deliberately crashing into an opponent’s chair. Play stops when a player falls. Bell noted that he falls often but shrugs it off as part of the game. Free throws are attempted, fast breaks are common. Bell’s team plays such an up-tempo style, they average 90 points a game.
The distinctive difference in wheelchair basketball is dribbling the ball. “Every two pushes, you have to dribble,” Bell explained, “Passing is crucial. We use our arms to guard on defense.” Chair position is also important on defense and for blocking out on rebounds. Bell has the thankless job of guarding much taller players. “I have to guard 7-footers. I have to guard a 7-foot-4 player in the Pan Am Games.”
Tall players also make it very difficult for Bell to get his shot off. “We use a lot of pick and rolls in games. Shooting requires space and timing because we don’t have much lateral movement.” Bell has become a trendsetter in the sport, with his signature move, which he perfected in college. He calls it his “Super Fade.”
“I fade away behind the arc, or toward the out-of-bounds line,” he noted. Like Michael Jordan before him, Bell’s fade-away is virtually un-guardable. Many top players are working to develop their own.
In another parallel with Jordan, Bell has qualified for the U.S. Paralympic “Dream Team.”
“We have a young, high-energy team with 12 players. We’re playing in Toronto from August 4-16 to qualify for Rio. We played in South Korea last year and lost to Australia.” Globetrotting is another perk for Bell, but he can’t display his skills in America.
“The U.S. has wheelchair basketball,” Bell said, “but there’s no funding — or fans.” Diane also spoke up on the subject, “We need to televise the Paralympics in the U.S. It changes the way people look at people with disabilities.”
Diane’s family, like Brian’s, has been very supportive of his career. Her parents, Robert and Kathleen Burdett and her younger sister Natalie traveled to Italy in March to visit. Diane’s older sister, Victoria, flew to Milan at Christmas time to help Diane when Lia was born.
Diane is a pusher when it comes to her husband’s career. She recently presented him with a blade crafted by his prosthetist, so Bell can go jogging.
Before Bell can become a two-sport athlete, his family has another hurdle to overcome. Kaylan needs to learn Italian, because she starts school next year. And what kid wouldn’t want to grow up in the mountains of Italy, with a nurturing stay-at-home mom and a dad who overcame so much to become an international star?