XXL Interview with Ian Sagar: “You can’t come from nothing to win it all.” | Part 1

“You can’t come from nothing to win it all.” | Ian Sagar has been one of the central figures in the British Wheelchair Basketball Programme since he made his first team in 2009, but missed out on a World Championship gold medal in Hamburg last year after taking some time away from the international game. This year, however, he is back and ready to fight for another gold medal at the European Championships in Poland, and to prove he deserves a sport in the team for Tokyo 2020. Joe Bestwick caught up with his former teammate to talk about how Ian discovered basketball, why he decided to take time out and what his hopes are for this summer and beyond.


Hi Ian, great to catch up with you. If it’s ok with you let’s start at the beginning, what did life look like for you growing up and how did you get involved in wheelchair basketball?

I grew up in Barnsley, in Yorkshire and it’s fair to say growing up was pretty rough at times where we lived. I wasn’t really interested in sport as a kid, but I played football and rugby at school, although to be fair that was more just for the fights! I left school and worked in a company that produced and analysed different metals for companies and spent my time just going out with my mates, nothing really special.


So where did sport come in?

When I was 17 I had an accident that left me paralysed and I spent months recovering in hospital in Sheffield, and it just so happened that this hospital was attached to a sports hall where the Sheffield Steelers trained. The first day I was allowed to leave my room (I’d been in there for four months already!) I, lying on my stomach in a converted mortuary trolley, pushed down the corridor and watched the guys training through the window. I loved what I saw, the aggression and the physicality, and I told myself that once I was out of hospital I was going to give it a go. This didn’t quite pan out.



As once I was allowed home from hospital I didn’t ever want to see the place again. I found being in a wheelchair like being a toddler again, having to learn to walk and all these things, except in my case I had to learn to push a wheelchair, looking out for every little crack in the pavement or loose stone, and a few times I ended up falling out. By the time I was finished with all that I just didn’t want to ever go back and I ended up getting caught up going out with friends and back into my old life. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately in hindsight I couldn’t go back to my old job as it would have been too dangerous, I’d have melted my wheelchair, and long story short, I ended up working for RGK Wheelchairs. The guys there kept hassling me to go along and try out basketball, saying it would be a great way to meet new customers etc so eventually I went along with a couple of them to some sessions and fell in love with it. Unfortunately for RGK I loved basketball so much that I ended up quitting and started training full time to try and make the GB team!


So how did you find it when you started with GB?

The first time I went along to some of their sessions I was a bit starstruck to be honest. There were guys like Fred Howley a 4.0, former GB centre who I worked with at RGK and every time he caught the ball it was like “bam” and he scored, and that made me think if I tried hard enough maybe I could get there.


So how long from when you first started playing was it until you made a GB team? Because I remember you narrowly missing out on selection to Beijing 2008 when Muz (Murray Treseder, former GB coach) decided to take Blakey (Andy Blake, 2.5, former GB captain) over you…

I was luckily invited to a couple of sessions and camps within the first one or two years, and at the end of the camps there would be a debrief meeting with Muz, and he’d in his own blunt way explain why you weren’t selected and all the things you weren’t good enough at, be it too fat or not quick enough blah blah blah.

Ian & his mates.


And then?

I couldn’t accept that though so I went away and trained even harder. He told me I wasn’t in shape so I went away and got fitter. He told me I didn’t train enough so instead of twice a day I trained three times a day. Then the last time was before Beijing and he told me I was thirteenth on the list but I wasn’t strong enough, so while you guys went off to Beijing I spent that whole summer just lifting weights, waking up every two hours in the night to drink protein shakes, doing everything I could to get as big and strong as possible. Then when you guys came back from Beijing and we all started training together again it was clear he appreciated all the work I had put in, and the next year I made the squad, and I had worked hard for it.


Did you feel like he was deliberately pushing you so hard because he knew you’d respond to it?

Well in my book (link at the end of the article) I go into quite a lot of detail about this period and Murray, but at the time no I didn’t, I thought he was just being an arse. But if he hadn’t treated me like that I would’t be the person I am today, never mind the player I became. I regularly catch myself using messages and phrases he used to use when I talk to my kids, even though they were things I hated at the time. He might not have communicated it right, it maybe wasn’t nice to hear at the time, but he was usually right. Finally, all these years later I can appreciate it. It just made me want to go away and prove him wrong, I wanted to come back and ram his words back down his throat and prove to him I was better than he thought I was. Maybe if someone had put their arm round my shoulder and been gentler with me back then, maybe I’d never have made it. It was sink or swim with Murray, for a lot of people that method didn’t work as if you didn’t take his message than you sank and that was it you were out, luckily though it worked for me.


Pretty much as soon as you made a team you were also in the starting five.

Yeah that’s true. He still shouted and screamed at me, sometimes so hard his false teeth would fall out, but he did play me a lot, so I guess despite calling me every name you can think of, he still rated and respected me. We had a pretty good run under him too despite a couple of poor results, losing just one game in Birmingham (World Championships 2010) but finishing sixth, finishing fourth in London (Paralympics 2012) and fifth in South Korea (World Championships 2014) despite again only losing one game.


Ian & family.

How do you feel about those disappointing results?

London was the one that hurt the most. I was the last one to leave the Paralympic Village, everyone else had got up at 8am the daz we were allowed to leave and they were gone, I was still there at 4pm because I didn’t want to have to go home and see my mum because I had told everyone we were going there to win a medal and I was embarrassed that I had let them all down, I felt I had failed. That’s what made me decide to go back abroad. I had played in Toledo in Spain together with Ade Orogbemi (2.5, former GB player), and we did okay, nothing too spectacular, we didn’t win anything, but we made a few finals and it was a good experience.


Do you think that experience of coming close but not quite winning, plus the disappointment of London is something that actually helped you in Italy?

Absolutely, because it’s a learning curve, you can’t come from nothing to win it all, you need these disappointments and experiences of almost making it to learn. After London I was embarrassed, I didn’t want to see my mum, I didn’t want to see my mates, I just wanted to hide away from everybody. If you won gold in London then your local post box was painted gold and my mates had already chosen which box they wanted to have painted, and I’d let them all down.


What happened next?

I had a few offers after London, and a few of the other GB guys were going together to Santa Stefano, but after that heartbreak I guess you could say, I just wanted to go away on my own as an escape, and have some space from everyone. I felt ashamed looking at my mum having made her all these promises and having broken them all.


So tell me about Cantu …

Cantu had been a middling team, never really in danger of getting relegated, never really likely to win anything, but when I arrived they had invested some money and brought in guys like Chris Okon (2.5 USA), Kai Moeller (3.0, Germany), Andre Bienek (3.0, Germany) and Jocke Lindblom (3.0, Sweden). Just in my apartment there were four different nationalities, most who didn’t speak Italian, some, like Kai, who didn’t speak any English or Italian, so it was surreal but we got on really well, and that was the year I felt like I learnt to be a winner.


You can order Ian Sagar’s book in Italian here: Click! – An English version is planned.


How do you mean? What had changed?

All those close one or two point games we were winning, the ball just seemed to drop for us when it mattered, but we also had great balance on the court. We played 3.0, 3.0, 3.0, 3.0, 2.5, with myself and Kai as big, strong centres who wanted to pick and roll and get inside, Andre and Jocke as point guards and shooters, and Okon as just an unbelievable shooter who in one game in the US League hit, I think, 19 23 three pointers in one game! Somebody like that is obviously a centre’s dream. We all complimented each other, hung out together, ate our meals together and we just couldn’t stop winning. We won all three Italian titles plus the Andre Vergauwen Cup.


Plus the European Championship gold in Frankfurt…

Yeah exactly, I had the perfect year, every cup I was involved in I had won. Things looked a bit different with GB then as Murray had left after London and Haj (Bhania, current GB coach) took over, but I stayed involved up to Rio (Paralympics 2016).


To be continued …


Interview: Joe Bestwick | Photos: private

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