The missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential of British basketball | Basketball

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The squeak of rubber soles filled the arena, the smell of popcorn and hotdogs was in the air and the atmosphere was electric. It was Manchester in 1999, but this was not an Oasis concert, or even a Manchester United match. It was the British Basketball League (BBL) title-decider between the Manchester Giants and Sheffield Sharks.

Sheffield eventually clinched the league title on a last-second, game-winning jump-shot. That it would be the high-water mark of the BBL wouldn’t have crossed the minds of any of the 11,000 in attendance that day. Nor would it have occurred to those watching at home, live on Sky Sports. Or the sponsors who had thrown their weight behind the league – Budweiser took naming rights that year, but were joined by Playboy and Peugeot – in the expectation of Britain going basketball mad in the new millennium.

Chris Finch, currently head coach of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and the man calling the shots for Sheffield that day, remembers it well. “That game was emblematic of what the game [in the UK] had the potential to become and, at times, was,” he says. On the Manchester bench was another future NBA head coach: Nick Nurse, who won the NBA title with the Toronto Raptors in 2019.

British basketball was creating such a buzz, in fact, that NTL outbid Sky with a 10-year, £22m contract, but within two years had filed for bankruptcy. ITV Digital picked up the rights but themselves went under 18 months later, robbing the BBL of £21m, untold exposure, and the chance to capitalize on the momentum of British basketball’s big moment.

It has struggled to recover ever since, plagued by chronic underfunding and political infighting. To be a British basketball fan in the 21st-century is to live with a series of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens as the game has tried to regain its momentum and release its untapped potential.

A return to Sky Sports in recent years has been encouraging, but its home on the broadcaster’s minor channels pales in comparison to its primetime exposure in the late 90s. A £7m investment from Miami-based fund 777 for a 45% stake in the league has made some hopeful again, but for long-term British basketball fans the cyclical disappointments have brought on pessimism; ‘wait and see’ seems to be the approach for most.

It’s why many view that season-finale in 1999 as the high-point of the sport in Britain. “It was certainly the glory days,” Finch says, “perhaps the pinnacle of basketball in the UK in the last 25 years.”

While there are myriad explanations for basketball’s failures in Britain, a lack of popularity is not one of them. According to the Active Lives survey, more than one million British people regularly play basketball, and among those aged 18-34, 14% play every week. That makes it Britain’s joint-second most popular team sport among young people – after football, of course – tied with cricket, netball and softball, and ahead of rugby union and rugby league.

Sam Neter, the man behind Britain’s biggest basketball media-platform, Hoopsfix, has his finger on the pulse of the UK game better than anyone, and sees that enthusiasm reflected at the grassroots. In children’s basketball, he says, there is simply “more demand than they can supply.”

And of the thousands who play every week, more than half are from an ethnic-minority background, and according to Sport England basketball has the highest proportion of participants in manual and routine work occupations. Basketball is, by any measure, a diverse, working-class sport.

It also enjoys a cultural cachet that eludes more traditional sports like rugby and cricket, and taps into a transatlantic youth culture already firmly established in Britain. American music is laden with basketball references, fashion dominated by its hats, jerseys, and shoes, and British fans sell-out the annual NBA London fixture in minutes.

The enthusiasm for basketball certainly exists in Britain, so what’s holding it back? Very simply put: money. A double-pronged lack of funding has always been the problem that underpins all others; at both the elite and grassroots level, British basketball suffers from a severe lack of investment.

Between 2013 and 2017 Sport England gave basketball just £9.25 per participant. In contrast, cricket received £70.72 per participant and rugby union almost £60, despite both having fewer participants among young people.

Luol Deng, a two-time NBA All Star, is perhaps the most successful British basketball player in history
Luol Deng, a two-time NBA All Star, is perhaps the most successful British basketball player in history. Photograph: Ron Jenkins/AP

It’s the same story at the elite level. In preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, UK Sport – the body that funds Great Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic teams – gave basketball £8m. But £27m went to the rowing programme, almost £23m to sailing, and more than £13m to equestrian teams. For last year’s Tokyo Games, £16m was awarded to canoeing, while bobsleigh (more than £5m) and curling (£5.6m) got healthy injections of cash to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

It doesn’t take a sociologist to understand the different subsections of British society represented in these sports, but the discrepancies are, according to the funding body’s own criteria, logical.

UK Sport is motivated by prestige: that is, how likely a team is to win a medal. At London 2012 the men’s team lost by just one point to eventual silver medalists Spain and the women’s team massively improved their international ranking, yet basketball funding was cut completely. While neither team had a realistic chance of winning a medal in 2012, they had promising tournaments and cutting funding meant building on that promise was made almost impossible.

And despite it all, British basketball has produced talent beyond its means. Steve Bucknall became the first British NBA player when he suited-up for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989. Since then, Luol Deng started his career with the Brixton Topcats in London before becoming a two-time NBA All-Star, while Joel Freeland, John Amaechi, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu all had respectable careers in the US. Johannah Leedham, now playing in the WBBL, had a wildly successful career in US college basketball, becoming the NCAA Division II all-time leading scorer.

In 2022 there are British players starring across the European leagues. Sixty-seven Britons are playing in the NCAA’s Division I, the elite level of US college basketball. Yet, these talents all have one thing in common: they had to leave in order to succeed. British basketball has, as Neter puts it, “massive problems with basketball infrastructure that doesn’t allow talent to be nurtured … by every single objective measure it is massively underfunded.”

One British professional who knows that well is Devon Van Oostrum. As one of the most promising prospects Britain has ever produced, he had offers from both sides of the Atlantic but never considered the BBL: “at the time [it] was so far off where I wanted to go,” he explains.

After signing with Spanish club Baskonia at the age of 16, his career has taken him to the Greek, Dutch, Lithuanian, Finnish and, for one game only, the British league. He has represented England and Great Britain at every level, played with and against Europe’s top talent, and seen first-hand what makes top leagues successful.

For him, the difference is clear. “If you look at any other league,” he says, “the best teams have the best homegrown talent.” British basketball has for decades struggled to retain its top talent and develop them in its domestic leagues. Van Oostrum is just one of hundreds who felt his career was best served abroad. “The talent has always been there,” he adds, “but the way of playing basketball is just not up to par with the rest of Europe.”

British basketball’s lack of talent pathways for elite prospects means it loses them and, very often, never gets them back. “What I don’t understand [about the BBL] is why they don’t go after GB players?” Van Oostrum says. “Why would you not go after them and build around them?”

But succeeding against the odds is a trend in British basketball. Off the court it has long-existed as a social remedy for some of the shortcomings of the British state. In Newcastle, the Hoops 4 Health program works with children to promote wellbeing in some of the most deprived parts of the country.

Newham All-Star Sports Academy’s Carry a Basketball, not a Blade (CABNAB) works in London to educate young people about the dangers of knife crime. Its founder, Anthony Okereafor, started the scheme after his friend “died in my arms” and “I realized it could have been me who was stabbed if I hadn’t found basketball,” he says.

CABNAB was born and has made a tangible positive impact on Newham’s streets. “From when we started in 2008 to 2014, there was a 46% reduction in knife crime-related violence involving young people in our borough,” Okereafor explains.

Basketball is one of the most popular team sports in the UK but facilities are often lacking
Basketball is one of the most popular team sports in the UK but facilities are often lacking. Photograph: Getty Images

Why is that? He feels that basketball has a pull that other sports simply don’t: “Most of the NBA stars they see are black or come from countries like Lithuania or Serbia that have a sizable migrant population. Kids from low-income families can relate to basketball stars.”

Okereafor is not alone in recognizing the difference basketball can make to lives and communities. But British politicians have thus far been reluctant to tap the sport’s off-the-court potential.

In Britain, 12 years of Conservative government has seen youth services cut by 70%. In that time more than 750 youth centers have closed and 4,000 youth workers have been lost. In many communities basketball fills the gaps left in British society by austerity driven public-sector cuts.

“Growing up we had youth clubs, kids zones, after-school clubs and things like that to keep us busy,” Okereafor says. “With funding cuts and schemes being shut down, there was nowhere for people to go and do something productive.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Basketball described “basketball’s success in addressing the issues relating to education, health, inclusion, opportunities, aspiration, gang culture, anti-social behaviour and meaningful employment.” There is, it concludes, “no more efficient sporting vehicle than basketball to improve outcomes for individuals and communities.”

What hoops fans in Britain have known for decades, those in Westminster now know. They, too, see what’s holding the sport back: “there has been and remains a sustained underfunding … compared with other high participation team sports,” the parliamentary group concluded.

The various factors holding back British basketball are interconnected. Having a properly funded grassroots game to feed the enormous appetite for youth participation will improve coaching, which will improve young talent and feed better players into the club system who, with the proper resources, can retain the top talent and feed them into the BBL and international teams.

But putting the slam-dunks and gold medals aside, the fundamental question underlying the British basketball conundrum is a simple one: what is sport for? Does it exist for the prestige of winning medals in elitist sports or is it about providing tangible social good?

It seems that, in Britain, you are more likely to receive adequate public sports funding if you are privately-educated and white, or participate in niche sports that involve donning a leotard and launching yourself down an icy obstacle course.

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Football, rugby, and cricket are big enough in the UK to generate their own commercial income. But beyond those three, British sports funding bodies are pouring money into elite pastimes played by elites in elite competition along class and racial lines that are uncomfortably familiar in the UK.

If basketball was played by white, middle-class Britons, as opposed to working-class minorities in London, or working-class whites in Britain’s northern cities, it is hard to imagine such a dearth in public funding.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised a “leveling-up” agenda. Perhaps one way of truly leveling-up British society would be to invest in basketball: a sport that already does so much good with so little, and remains massively popular despite it all.

British basketball may one day realize its potential, but the diehards in the game know they will most likely have to overcome the obstacles themselves, as they always have. “Ain’t nobody coming to save us,” Neter says, “we gotta do it ourselves.”

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