The man from Northern Ireland will be heading to Birmingham this week for the inaugural tournament at the Commonwealth Games, after beating out Scotland and Wales in qualification event in Largs, Scotland.
“It was really nice to win wearing green,” James MacSorley laughs.
A bronze medal in the Tokyo Paralympics and a World Championship gold in 2018, the British international is used to the hues of the Union Jack, but there was that one colour he’s been desperate to represent since he first dribbled a ball.
“I was born in Belfast; I went to school, and I went to uni in Queens… I consider myself very fortunate to be where I’m from and be who I am and play for team GB, but at the same time there’s something really, really special about, well ‘playing with people who sound like me’.”
This Summer will be the first time MacSorley has had the chance to give a title to his nation and his reminiscences of home take us back to 2001 when he was first introduced to the sport.
“I was six and my sister was seven when my parents found the Belfast Knights basketball wheelchair team. I just remember pushing into that room and it was this really weird thing that, I was in a room full of kids with disabilities and my wheelchair disappeared,” he muses.
Both him and his sister, Eimear, were born with spina bifida; which is a birth defect that affects the development of the spine and the spinal cord.
“Going into a room where everything I had to deal with normally, was normal, was absolutely amazing. I could see kids going off to secondary school or doing their GCSEs and A Levels, and guys in Uni and disabled people with families, wives and husbands and without knowing it, it kind of opened the door to all these things which were in front of me.”
A decade later and MacSorely entered the GB’s u22s. He played until he aged out after completing his Law with Spanish degree at Queens University in Belfast, which comes in handy now that he plays his club basketball in Spain with Bidaideak Bilbao BSR.
But before that, the Irishman came to a crossroads.
“I wasn’t sure whether I was good enough to make it at a senior level,” he admits
“I went over to Sheffield where team GB were based and secured a bit of funding from UK Sport and gave it a really good go.
“From there, I went from not being sure I was going to make it, to being in a World Championship winning team in a season. A year previous to that I didn’t think this was an avenue that I was sure to have in front of me – a lot can happen in a year.”
The meaning of such words could not resonate more with a man. A year that brought the highest highs was shortly followed by a year plunged into deep lows as MacSorley fought death twice in six months after recovering from a repeated stomach obstruction.
“Apparently, these things just happen sometimes,” he says.
“My mental health took a real dive. I came out of that through a lot of support from my family and also some professional psychological support.
“The crooks of being an athlete at a high level are, you kind of go along with a lot of highs and lows continuously. While that can actually equip you to deal with some of the highs and lows that come along with normal life, there’s also the flipside of it where you’re in a very high-pressure situation a bit more regularly than your average person.”
It’s clear that MacSorley is replaying those six months in his head as he recalls a conversation he had with his wife and his father whilst he was sat in a hospital bed.
“I told them ‘My brain is absolutely melted, and I might need to go chat to someone to put the pieces back together’.”
MacSorley reached out to UK Sport who provided the help and support he needed to break things down and build them back up to a place better than he’s ever been in before.
A successful Paralympics and marrying his childhood sweetheart Anna, were both worth the downs of a year where he learned so much and provided a catalyst for personal growth he had no idea would ever come.
“Nearly dying changes how you think about things so I’m really appreciative of who I have around me and the opportunities I have in front of me,” MacSorley says.
“I used to stress about everything when I was 22. I was worried about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Now, as much as I try, I only worry about the things I can actually control. I’m more aware of what’s worth putting my time and effort into.”
And that time and effort isn’t only reserved for playing basketball. Although he admits to spending most of his free time with his wife and a good coffee, the 27-year-old also has an all-basketball podcast with a fellow player, Mark Scholefield.
“It’s called Bench Units because we sat on the bench together in Sheffield and talked a load of nonsense,” he laughs.
“But we had a friend at the time who ran a website that had some podcasts on it, so we were like ‘hey you should give us a podcast.’ Now, we do it for us mostly, we really enjoy it and it’s a nice way to sort of keep in touch and talk to the world about wheelchair basketball.”
MacSorley finds increasing the exposure to the game hugely important and he hopes this year’s Commonwealth Games will help to achieve what his parents did all those years ago, for children across the nation, when they introduced him to a life of impossible possibilities.
“I’m very fortunate to be where I am, and I’m very fortunate to have my health where I didn’t previously. I’m in a place that I love, doing what I love with the woman that I love.”
Northern Ireland men’s 3×3 wheelchair basketball teams competition will get underway on Saturday (30 July) in Birmingham and they will face tough competition after being drawn in a group with Canada and Australia. Find out more about the 3×3 wheelchair basketball competition at Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Article written by Mel Edwards. Photo Credit: Chris Cox – TUBPodcast