Basketball. A sport dominated by the United States, and growing in talent and popularity every year across almost every other continent. While we see the proof of all that, there is one exception: the UK. There’s a passion for the game here, but it’s not being paid attention to. ‘Paid’ being a key word there, with funding cuts a common thing for the sport here and a hurdle that is yet to be cleared. Players in the national team are having to live on £15 a day in the build up to international tournaments, with tiny beds and early morning flights. After the NBA’s recent trip to London, I’ve been having a think about the current state of the game in the UK and where it’s heading.
I don’t quite remember when I fell in love with the game, but it was fuelled through my older brother. Both pretty tall from a young age, we had a hoop on the back of the house and would shoot around whenever we weren’t playing on the Playstation or watching TV. While I enjoyed watching the NBA highlights on TV once a week and playing the NBA video games, my passion for the sport stemmed from watching the game live at Crystal Palace 2/3 times a month seeing the London Towers in action. I couldn’t get enough of the idea that I could watch the American game I fell in love with right here in my hometown.
While I had no idea what the national team was up to, watching some BBL action was enough for me to know that I’m not alone in the UK. Then the London Towers folded, and I didn’t have a team to watch anymore. That’s when I realised that there’s a problem in the UK with ignorance towards one of the biggest sports in the world. I’ve played the game; I’ve coached the game; I’ve heard a number of viewpoints on the sport. Basketball in the UK is, and continues to be, a sad, sad story.
I didn’t have proper coaching growing up. My shooting form was unorthodox, but effective. I grew in to my own game, and discovered my skills and weaknesses. I had no plans of taking my game far, but I struggled with finding opportunities to play outside of school, where the sport wasn’t taken seriously unless myself and the guy in these photos made the P.E. teachers feel guilty for only caring about football.
It was important to learn about the game ourselves, and take our attention off the glossy magazine of the basketball world (NBA) and look at how the real game was being played. College basketball, European basketball, and the pick-up basketball at our local street courts. We still had nothing to focus on here, though. And while London may have a professional team again competing in the national league, the funding and the sports infrastructure over here remains to be the only reason the incredible level of talent in the country isn’t seeing its full potential.
I remember attending my first ever NBA game in London. 2008, a pre-season matchup between the Celtics and Timberwolves. The first time the NBA had been in the UK since 1995. A sold out O2 Arena watching Ray Allen nail threes from the corner. My dad bought my friends and I tickets. A great experience, for sure, but what annoyed me was that not long after that game Sky Sports decided not to renew their contract with the NBA. The pinnacle of basketball was brought to the UK and captivated everyone, including those who shouted “GOAL!” when Kevin Garnett made a layup. Only for a complete anti-climax as the game couldn’t be watched as regularly as before, with just Channel 5 unconveniently showing West coast games at about 2am.
I had a chat recently with a couple of people trying to maintain the growth of popularity of basketball in the UK, while making every effort to showcase the talent we have to offer.
Sam Neter is founder of Hoopsfix, the UK’s biggest basketball site, who has one goal: to improve the coverage of basketball within the UK. Nhamo Shire is the founder of Midnight Madness, an annual celebration tournament of British basketball talent. As a big fan of their efforts, I asked them a few questions on their views of the current state of the game on home soil.
What’s British basketball looking like right now?
Sam: I guess everything is all relative – depends what you’re comparing it to. If you look at in terms of how good it should be, with the resources we have available, then it’s bad. Nowhere close to it’s potential – we could be getting a lot more out of what we do have, regardless of the situation with funding and whatever else.
Nhamo: Without question the sport needs more funding. There also needs to be a better infrastructure for the game. If you give these players the chance to play, they can show that the talent in this country is strong. What they need around them is the infrastructure. There is a reason that a lot of the best players we have around us in the UK are choosing to go away and play in Europe. If you ask any of them if they had the choice to stay at home, play every day and get the coaching and facilities here, they would stay. Works being done, but it’s a little too slow.
Where are we heading with it all and what can be done?
Sam: I don’t know – anyone who says otherwise is lying; there’s no way of predicting the future. For me, ultimately it comes down to leadership, and until we get the right people in charge, we will struggle. A new CEO (Huw Morgan) for Basketball England came in almost a year ago to the day and is starting to make a lot of changes, so hopefully it’s the beginning, but I’m forever the optimist, only to be continually disappointed. I hope it won’t be the case again.
Nhamo: I started Midnight Madness because there was nothing out there to showcase the talent we have here. We needed a platform for our best to come and show who they are, and show the wider world who they are. We’re part of British Basketball here, and if this was football we’d be in Wembley Stadium. Instead of complaining about the situation, we take back what we can control. We don’t control the funding, but we can put on a tournament for these young people to showcase what they’ve got. Hopefully, the right person watching will notice and say they want to invest in it all, whether that’s individually or for the sport as a whole.
I have to agree with Sam on this, in that I have no idea where British basketball is heading. It’s definitely growing in popularity and is part of our community culture a lot more than people understand. To get a better understanding from someone who knows a thing or two about the game over here, this article by John Amaechi on BBC Sport is a fantastic insight in to what a mess it all is. Still, the complaining only gets us so far. The sport needs more than a few angry people. There are youngsters in the UK who have serious talent and have the potential to reach the States and play in the NBA, but without the support around them, it’s a battle we cannot win. From the roots up, basketball is becoming a bigger part of UK sporting culture, I just wished the people who could do something with that actually paid attention.