As Britain tears itself into pieces over Europe, the prospect of one of its lesser-heralded sports quietly sneaking a glance outwards over the channel could be getting brighter. The country may have thrown itself into the gutter, but some of its basketball teams are staring up at the stars.
A British Basketball League team playing in Europe wouldn’t be a first, but all recent attempts have ended in failure. The last club to try it was Guildford Heat in 2007/8 – they went 0-10 in the ULEB Cup, and the expense led to effective bankruptcy, although the franchise in a new guise continues to play in Surrey.
London Towers are familiar to Euroleague fans as a punchline after their 1-23 record between 2000 – 2002. Brighton Bears fared better in the ULEB Cup in 2003/4, just missing out on the second stage with a 4-6 campaign, including wins over KK Split and Lietuvos Rytas. The gloriously named American guard Randy Duck still holds the competition scoring record for his 49 in double OT win over Cholet.
Those Brighton and London teams are no more, mere memories of when British basketball flew too close to the sun. It wasn’t necessarily the European adventures that finished them off – the Icarus model of financial sustainability was endemic in those days. But it ushered in an era of rebuilding in British hoops. No point gazing across the water when the league was running on little more than goodwill and the interest of a few hundred ‘lifers’ keeping the flame alive for each club.
But over the past few years, signs of a revival in the BBL’s fortunes are beginning to emerge. The set-piece events of the midseason Cup Final and climactic Playoff Championship have drawn crowds in the thousands. Last year’s Playoff final attracted 13,000 fans to London’s o2 Arena, the same venue that holds the annual NBA Regular Season game. Such crowds would have been unthinkable even five years ago as the league struggled for credibility even amongst the most benevolent of supporters.
Leicester Riders have a new arena, purpose built by and for themselves, and aim to play in European competition soon. London Lions have also made noises to that effect, although ELA understands that is unlikely to be happening next season. Certainly in terms of midweek attendance, it would be a tall order to improve on the low hundreds who currently make the trip to the Olympic Park for BBL games.
But most promisingly perhaps, the club that has dominated the league over the past twelve years, Newcastle Eagles, has long since held the ambition to carry that momentum all the way to becoming a serious player on the continental front. With a new arena on the way, that dream is moving closer to becoming a reality.
Plenty of words have been spoken about the off-court, logistical issues in transforming domestic success. Teams need their own arenas, not only to control and increase revenue streams, but also for simple availability reasons. Eagles’ assistant coach Dave Forrester told me, speaking in December in London after a narrow Cup Semi-Final first leg win over the Lions:
“I was doing sums about five years ago to see if we could get into playing the games at the Metro Radio Arena for Paul [Blake] the owner, to see if there was a way of doing that. So as soon as we’ve got somewhere to play we’ll be looking at it extremely closely. I know that’s a politicians’ answer! We’ve got to get the arena built first because we can’t play if we can’t get the gym.”
It seems trivial, but if Eagles could block-hire their current venue – Northumbria University’s impressive 3,000 seat Sports Central – for two full days every other week for a few months, they’d be playing in Europe. As it is, they can’t, so they don’t. It may be a £30m venue for professional sport, but it’s also where the university’s recreational clubs play a multitude of games. Those accursed badminton players can disrupt even the highest level of ballers in this country.
These issues, of arenas, facilities and funding, have dominated what discussion there has been about the European question. But what about on the floor? The league has been invisible for years, without the chance to make an impression to the rest of the European family.
Nobody would claim it’s anywhere near the top leagues, but what about Hungary, Romania, Portugal, Estonia? All of these countries have put teams into Eurochallenge/FIBA Europe Cup and the Basketball Champions League (BCL) in recent years.
Eagles have dominated the BBL for a sustained period, winning 24 of the last 48 available trophies (there are four up for grabs per year). I was in the building as they took their latest, the BBL Cup Final in Birmingham in front of almost 9,000 fans. So how would they, or their British competitors, fare on court? Nevermind whether it will happen – what might happen when it does? I talked to some people to try to find out.
The fast and the furious
One thing that immediately jumps out when transitioning from watching hoops across most of Europe and the BBL is the pace of the latter. Simon Jatsch, one of the leading scouting consultants in Europe, who has helped teams recruit players up and down more or less every level, points to that as one of the league’s defining characteristics.
“The BBL is a fast and short league. There’s speed and decent athleticism, at least at the top level. Of Europe’s top 15 teams in transition possessions per game, six are from the BBL – this is pretty consistent season for season – so this is numbers-backed too.”
Forrester, who in addition to assisting player-coach Fab Flournoy from the bench is also responsible for player recruitment, also went straight to pace as one of the weapons teams from the BBL could deploy in Europe: “With the very specific way we play in this country, we would cause those teams problems because we play fast, our league is faster. Seven of the top 20 teams in Synergy in possessions per game are in the BBL. The BBL plays fast.”
Taking Newcastle, by consensus the best the league has had to offer recently, by their own admission they play pretty unstructured basketball offensively, but it works. Shots go up five, six, seven seconds into the shot clock on a regular basis, so having quick, volume scorers is a huge advantage.
In Rahmon Fletcher and Deondre Parks, they have talented shotmakers who have the green light, and can make difficult, off-balance buckets, at least at this level. The Eagles backcourt duo are representative of the player types clubs in the BBL can recruit, and ride to success.
Fletcher is a 5’11”/1.78m point guard who played at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and started his pro career in the Netherlands. This is now his third campaign in England’s northeast, during which time he has settled into his role as the lead creator on offense and a reliable big-time scorer, particularly in the biggest moments. He has won BBL Cup Final MVP on each of the three occasions he played in the game, as well as League MVP last season.
Fletcher is one of the most intriguing players I’ve seen this season – it’s difficult to throw out stylistic comparisons. Perhaps vintage Bo McCalebb for the way he fearlessly throws himself towards the rim or Jerel Blassingame with even more herk to his jerk? The way he contorts his body in midair and throws up awkward-looking scoop shots off the glass is compelling, and undeniably effective. It shouldn’t really work at all, but it does, so who’s to say more seasoned, disciplined defenders would do much better in stopping him?
Deondre Parks is another undersized scorer with a point to prove. He came up through Iowa Lakes Community College and South Dakota State, where he was named All-Summit League First Team in his junior year. This is his rookie professional year, and he was a big get for Eagles.
Parks has a next-level crossover, an exhilarating first step and the scoring gene that every sub-six foot underdog carries with him onto the floor. It’s easy to see him getting buckets on the European stage using that combination of toughness, speed and self-confidence. Just as importantly, he’s a phenomenally hard worker and eager to learn.
Not your Balkan uncle’s basketball
Eagles’ style, particularly if it backfired, would leave many Greek or Serbian fans scratching their heads. Even the Spanish-style new-school, uptempo, ‘take every good shot early’ ethos favoured by the likes of Aito Garcia-Reneses and Pablo Laso looks pedestrian by comparison. But if you’ve sat through 2017’s exponents of the 1995-era slowed-down, walk-it-up, wing post-up, first-to-65 mentality, playing in these talent-diluted, financially precarious times, it might be a breath of fresh air.
So playing quick, beating the other team down the floor, relentlessly going to the rim, you can start to imagine how Newcastle could turn some heads in Europe. But it might be a tough ask to keep that going for 40 minutes without the luxury of some of the less challenging opposition found in the domestic league, at least without adding a couple more players already at the level of the team’s – and league’s – best. Forrester again:
“We would have to adjust, it would depend on what it did for our budget, because budget matters. We’re certainly not deep enough, no BBL team is deep enough to manage a European schedule and a BBL schedule as it is now. The BBL plays more games than most leagues in Europe, the year we won everything we played 50 games. So you add in Europe and we wouldn’t have been deep enough. In relation to the talent of the players that we have – the teams that we played against in pre-season, they were scouting and signing the same players we were scouting. That was Bakken from Denmark, Tartu from Estonia before that Sodertalje, Antwerp and Oostende…”
Offering continuity and a credible, professional environment is something Eagles can point to in recruitment, and Fletcher was key to attracting his backcourt partner to the team. Speaking after that BBL Cup win, where he scored 25 points, Parks told me: “Everything [Fletcher] told me before I came here was the honest truth, and it’s hard to find that anywhere. I call him my big brother.”
Forrester spoke about that togetherness as another possible leg up that the team could use against more talented opponents: “The other thing we benefit from in this country certainly ourselves more than probably most teams is that we have continuity of player from season to season, probably more than it is in continental Europe, and that would give us a definite benefit as a starting point, which would maybe make up for some of the talent issues.”
Found in translation
Basketball is basketball, but the mid-to-lower levels of European hoops can be a tough place for a young American. Standards of accommodation and regularity of paycheques can vary. There can be a language barrier. Parks is from Flint, MI and played college ball in Iowa and South Dakota, so the cold of a winter in Ukraine might not have bothered him, but it’s easy to picture how much easier it is to take that first step into balling for a living without the other obstacles.
The BBL’s leading scorer right now at 24.44 PPG is Maurice Walker, a 25 year old Canadian big man who was honourable mention All-Big 10 at Minnesota and split his rookie year between Pesaro in Italy’s top flight and Keravnos in Cyprus. He touched down with BBL team Worcester Wolves after starting this season in Latvia with BK Valmeira. He told me after dropping 26 and 8 in Wolves’ recent 100-71 victory in London that the comfort factor from speaking English was important: “Understanding game-planning, understanding what your coach is saying, what the opponent is saying, it’s big. If the coach wants something out of you, it’s straightforward to understand.”
Walker, at 6’10”/2.08m is exactly the kind of smooth, skilled big man teams at the FEC, lower end BCL are likely to have at least one of, and Worcester’s 112-103 victory in Newcastle last Friday was a cautionary tale. His 23 points and 9 rebounds were collected without serious interference from his opponents.
Defensively, Eagles are generally clever, disciplined and committed. They don’t get beat backdoor, and they switch a lot. That can work very well in the BBL, where most teams play four or even five out with a 6’6” ‘big’ man, but up against serious size in the middle and comparable athleticism on the wings, tougher questions might be asked.
Players like small-ball four Scott Martin, a two-year starter at Notre Dame where he suffered significant injury problems, and Darius Defoe, a tough 6’9″/2.05m centre who has been unjustifiably ignored by the Great Britain squad are defensive bulwarks. That comes from their hoops IQ, but also the continuity and team togetherness Forrester spoke of.
Choose your own adventure?
So given that a British expedition into pan-European competition seems plausible, that still describes a wide spectrum of difficulty. Euroleague is out; nobody seriously suspects a wildcard to the sweetest of 16s is likely in the medium term. Eurocup likewise would be a step too far.
So that leaves the FIBA tournaments. Of course, a team would have to be invited in, but the UK remains the last major market as yet untapped by basketball, and however undeveloped it is today, it seems unlikely that either FIBA or – conditional on substantial improvements – Euroleague would not want a slice.
I asked Forrester whether it was an accident that the club invited two Basketball Champions League (BCL) squads to Newcastle last September for a preseason tournament:
“No, it wasn’t a coincidence at all. it’s what Paul [Blake, Chairman] wanted. We have to find teams who want to come to Newcastle in September! But yeah, absolutely we want to find the best teams in countries that we see as comparable to the BBL. We know the players we recruit, where they’re going, where there are similar teams in Europe. We played against a guy at Tartu who we looked at in the summer who was available in our price range.”
He was confident, nevertheless, of at least some success at BCL level: “Depth we might struggle, injuries we might struggle, but talent level? I’ve got no doubt that we would be extremely competitive. I’d be disappointed if we didn’t win certainly some of our home games.”
Newcastles aren’t the only BBL team to have tempted continental opposition to the island in preseason. Leicester Riders went down heavily to ACB side Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro but handily defeated Belgium’s Okapi Aalstar in a warmup tournament last September. It was the second time in three years that both teams visited the East Midlands for preparations, and while it’s unrealistic to expect a BBL team to compete at this point with an ACB squad, the 89-69 win over the Belgians was encouraging.
Aalstar may not be playing in Europe this season but results like this should help to put to bed the idea that the BBL is amongst the worst leagues in Europe as some British detractors would have it. Huge, seemingly intractable problems exist with the national team programme, but all of the recent progress being made in the game in Britain has been made by its leading clubs.
Eagles have assembled a more than credible record of 2-2 against European opposition in the two preseason slants, beating Swedish champions Sodertalje Kings in 2015 and Denmark’s Bakken Bears last year, before narrowly losing to Estonian BCL representative Tartu in the final. Their opponents were also deeper into their preparations, and left knowing they had been given a real workout.
Of those teams Eagles triumphed over, Sodertalje went 3-3 in the fourth-tier FIBA Europe Cup (FEC) in 2015/16, and Bakken sit at 1-12 in the BCL Regular Season this time out, having beaten Tartu in the Qualifying Round. The Estonians went into FEC and bowed out at the first stage with an 0-4 record. Of course not much can be taken from a few preseason games, but it might suggest that Jatsch’s assessment holds some weight:
“It would make sense for BBL teams to start off in the FIBA Europe Cup since the BCL is too strong at this point. The FEC with Austrian, Slovakian and similar teams is a better fit, and you’d still play the odd French, German or Italian team that can set a goal and show you what’s missing between a top BBL team and a team from one of the top leagues.”
Of course, presence in a FIBA competition couldn’t hurt Eagles – or their compatriots – in attracting a higher calibre of player. Jatsch compared the recruitment of young Americans with Division Two in Germany:
“Those teams have brought in rookies like Jaysean Paige who was a key player at West Virginia, Aaron Thomas from Florida State or Nate Buss from from Northern Iowa. I haven’t seen BBL teams signing rookies of the same calibre.”
But if an agent could be enticed with the prospect of showing off his client in pan-European competition, it could get a British club the edge. Forrester agrees:
“I’ve no doubt that it would. If you’re putting a player in the shop window, it may help us financially in relation to recruiting them. But we have to have everything right, there’s no point in doing it in a half-baked way. If you do that, all you do is trash the reputation of your own club with the players, and that’s the most important thing. We guard that extremely seriously.”
Of course there is more than one way to judge a league than the calibre of its imports. Worcester Wolves’ roster includes Alex Navajas, a solid LEB Oro and Plata player, and Eagles bring Joe Hart, GB international and fellow LEB Oro alum off the bench. Both are important cogs for their teams, but only as dependable bench players. It is certainly not the case that experience on the continent means automatic BBL domination.
Current Worcester head coach Paul James was the playcaller at Guildford Heat when they embarked on that fateful ULEB Cup campaign, and he told me that in hindsight, it might have been a step too far. “I think when we went into the ULEB cup with Guildford, it was probably one level too high. We should probably have gone to the third tier of European competition and we’d have been a lot more competitive there, but what a fantastic experience it was anyway at the time.”
Those nights when Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez played at the Guildford Spectrum and trips to Berlin and Bosnia have lived long in the memory, but in the cold light of day, it might have been better to start lower. On the other hand, no good story ever began with the words “We decided to be prudent…”
With the logistical issue of Newcastle’s regional airport lacking direct flights to much of Europe, the regionalised structure of FEC’s opening rounds would be good insurance against taking six flights in 48 hours to get to southern Turkey, for example.
Betting big and aiming for a BCL place would send a fantastic signal about the club, and the league’s ambition, but FEC may present a safer, more plausible bet. The experience of British clubs in aiming too high, too soon, is one Newcastle are all too aware of, and it’s something they have studiously avoided in becoming the league’s preeminent power.
Eagles player-coach Fab Flournoy, still playing pound-for-pound like a BBL Draymond Green at age 43, was careful not to over-promise speaking in the post-Cup Final press conference, on the subject of a European adventure: “Until we cross that bridge, and yes – I want us to go – I can’t turn round and say we will be this or we will be that, because if I did say it, everyone would say well you haven’t gone yet, and that’s not my call.”
But he ended on a quietly confident, calmly defiant note: “I’m pretty confident our team and our league will be competitive, when we play, and eventually we will.
Leicester is on the precipice of it, I think we’re thereabouts, I think London Lions is coming and I think Sheffield is eager as well and I think it’ll be a domino effect once that happens. I do believe our league is a lot more competitive than people think it is across Europe.”
The rest of Europe, at a certain level, won’t have to wait much longer to put that theory to the test.