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Who will rule the Rollstuhl this year?
CHARLOTTE (Steve Goldberg's Wheel World) - The Rollstuhl Basketball Bundesliga, the top division of German Wheelchair Basketball League, tipped off last weekend and for only the second time since 2004, the defending RBBL champions are a team other than RSV Lahn-Dill.
Last season was the year of the Bull, the RSB Thuringia Bulls to be exact, grabbing the glory that has been the province of Wetzlar's Lahn-Dill.
Thuringia began their title defense with a 73-53 win over the Köln 99ers, while Lahn-Dill had a bye due to the withdrawal of the FCK Rolling Devils from the top flight.
Since the German wheelchair league began in 1973, there have been several dynasties. USC Munchen and BSG Duisberg took turns ruling the 70's, 80's and first half of the 90's, with the Bayerisch club racking up 13 German Championships, the last one in 1996. Duisberg claimed 7 trophies, the last in 1991.
RSV Lahn-Dill are to wheelchair basketball as FC Bayern are to top flight football in Germany. Photo courtesy of the RBBL
RSV Lahn-Dill won its first championship in 1998 but not its second until 2004 and didn't relinquish the top spot until 2009 when RSC-Rollis Zwickau interrupted. It then won the next six until last season for a total of 12 including a ridiculous 11 of the last 13 seasons.
Perhaps they were winning too much, if that's even a thing.
"They didn't add any new players over the last three years I was there so everyone became complacent in their roles," says former Lahn-Dill star Steve Serio, who captained the USA to gold in Rio. "Practices weren't as good, the team became a little stale. We were lacking that fire."
Not winning trophies is the exception rather than the rule for Lahn-Dill so that fire will burn bright this season.
"Naturally, we want to return the championship title," says RSV Head Coach Nicolai Zeltinger, who also led the German men in Rio last month. But he knows that won't be easy.
We already have two competitors of the European top class, with defending champions Thuringia and Hamburg, which guarantees a more than exciting race for the title. - Zeltinger
The return of Serio back home to the U.S., where he will join Canadian stars Pat Anderson and David Eng on the 2015 NWBA Championship Division titlists New York Rolling Knicks, left a huge hole to fill.
American Steve Serio, here playing against Hamburg in 2014, was an integral part of German and European success for RSV Lahn-Dill. Photo by Armin Diekmann. Courtesy of RSV Lahn-Dill
"It is not possible to replace Steve Serio, so we did not even try," says managing director Andreas Joneck.
Instead, the German side went nuclear, bringing in the Philipp Häfeli of Switzerland and the veteran Polish star, Piotr Luszynski, who helped Turkish team Galatasaray battle Lahn-Dill for European supremacy over the past several years.
With returning players Dirk Köhler and Joe Bestwick (GB), the addition of Häfeli and Luszynski reveal what Joneck calls "a tactical reorientation of the RSV game". So with four international centers in the squad, it looks like size matters for Lahn-Dill.
That doesn't mean that they are at a loss for scoring playmakers as they keep two world-class point-guards in gold medal winning American Michael Paye and Thomas Böhme, Germany's top scorer in Rio (17.3 ppg).
Though leaving, Serio says he's going to miss playing on this team. "They brought in a really good young Swiss player named Philip Häfeli, who's really going to thrive playing with Mikey (Paye) and some of the older veterans, and they brought in Piotr Luszynski, one of the best shooters in the world."
Recalling the games against Galatasaray, Serio went on about Luszynski, "He's one of the best players in the world that I've ever played against. He's a fantastic teammate and one of the best shooters in the world. I'm actually very jealous of my (former) teammates because they get to play with him."
According to Steve Serio, BG Baskets Hamburg has the ability to burn out a few scoreboards this season. Photo courtesy of the RBBL
BG Baskets Hamburg may be more offensive (but in that good way) though. Coached by Holger Glinicki, who helmed the German National Women's Team to gold in London and silver in Rio, is set to contend as well with a bevy of Paralympians that Serio says are capable of burning out some scoreboard lights.
The lineup includes Jake Williams, who led the USA scorers in the gold medal game in Rio, Great Britain's Gaz Choudhry, Canada's Nik Goncin, and the Japanese duo of Reo Fujimoto and Hiroaki Kozai.
"The amount of talent that Holger has to work with this year is pretty spectacular," notes Serio. "I don't know if they can put it all together because there's only one basketball and they have a lot of scorers on that team. If they can, holy moly, they can be well over 100 points every single game!"
They are the new Golden State Warriors. They are going to play super-fast and shoot from everywhere. - Serio on Hamburg's firepower
They didn't get there in week one, beating the Doneck Dolphins of Trier by an ordinary 78-62.
"The sheer amount of talent they have means they will be up there for the championship."
While Lahn-Dill had the stars, it was the Bulls who were the better team at the end of the season.
"Thuringia played great; they really put it together towards the end of the year," says Serio. "You could tell they were the hungrier team."
Can lightning strike twice for the RSB Thuringia Bulls in 2016-17? Photo courtesy of the RBBL
"They are the defending champions and they are bringing back many of the same players they had last year."
This year's squad features German national teamers André Bienek and Aliaksandr Halouski, Iran Paralympian Vahid Gholamazad, and Sweden's Joakim Linden.
Lahn-Dill opens their season at home against none other than Hamburg on Saturday while Thuringia will seek win number two against ASV Bonn who also won last week.
Serio signed off with me with a bit of understatement about the new season.
"There are three top teams with different styles. It will be interesting to watch."
Yes it will.
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