British Basketball Fails To ‘Inspire A Generation’

By: Rob Scott / @robscott33

Golden Saturday, they called it. Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Gregg Rutherford won gold in track and field in front of a home crowd whipped up to a religious level of delirium.

As I write, the day after,  Andy Murray took gold in the tennis, while by 7:00 PM Monday night ‘Team GB’ could have another two Olympic champions, with Victoria Pendelton and Jason Kenny looking to add to the gold rush in the velodrome.

I hadn’t mentioned Ben Ainslie because sailing isn’t a real sport, but don’t tell the British press. There were some rowing medals too, but by now you get the picture.

As the nation cheered on their runners and jumpers to the highest personal glory it’s possible to attain in sports, its basketball team was throwing away a 46-36 halftime lead over Australia in a must win game, on the way to losing 106-75.

Don’t bother with the maths, I’ll save you the time. They were outscored 70-29 in the second half. That’s 41 points. Their most important twenty minutes of basketball since the GB programme was born in 2006, was also its worst.

It barely seems worth exploring the reasons why our team lost the game. On paper, it wasn’t a surprise—Patty Mills is a world class point guard and his counterparts on the GB team can barely breathe the same air, let alone guard him. He dropped 39 points on 14/22 shooting and the eight shots he missed were hardly due to tough defence.

If the game had come down to the final possessions as it did with Spain and Brazil, there would have been frustration but encouragement to keep going. The abject capitulation in the face of a few missed layups and the brilliance of one opposing player was shocking but, unfortunately, not particularly surprising.

The stark truth is that despite periodic encouraging signs, this team has not improved in three years since it made its major tournament debut at Eurobasket 2009. Neither 2009 nor 2011 did anything to penetrate the mainstream, The Olympic tournament was the one chance that basketball had to grab the attention of the British public and, equally as important, government funding bodies. The next Olympic cycle begins soon, and basketball is no closer to being on the radar as it was before 2006.

It’s tempting to overreact to a bad twenty minutes. But this could be the beginning of the end for the senior men’s and women’s programmes. For the several hundred actual basketball fans exiting the Olympic Basketball Arena on Saturday night, it was like walking into the best party in the world just after watching your girlfriend cheat on you with your worst enemy.

Throughout the tournament, the crowds have been mostly ambivalent towards the action on the floor, other than during the halftime entertainment. For the handful of real basketball fans who managed to get tickets, it was a struggle to get through the constant and intrusive ‘hype man’ on the mic distracting the crowd with constant inane singsongs and Mexican waves, regardless of whether it was pre-game or with the game on the line. Particularly for anyone who had been to top level European games.

The basketball has been phenomenal - Russia vs Brazil, GB vs Spain, USA vs Lithuania, those games were as great an introduction to hoops as a beginner could wish for, in terms of excitement if not absolute quality of play. Hopefully some of them will have seen through the nonsense and fallen in love with this wonderful game of ours.

The slogan of the games, ‘Inspire a Generation’ has been all over the Olympic branding, even written on the inside of the rims. A generation of British youth will certainly have been inspired by these games—to be the fastest on two legs or two wheels, but not to play basketball. With no chance of improving the visibility of the game in the UK, any kids who were inspired by the world class teams will not find their chances of finding a dedicated facility improved by the six years of the GB Basketball project.

Basketball fans in Britain, the ones who know things, were realistic. Nobody expected anything better than a quarter final place, and even their 1-4 record would have been ruefully accepted as progress with credible defeats. The bigger result would have been taking several steps in one go towards basketball being recognised as a legitimate sport in Britain.

That seems as far away from becoming reality as it has done at any time before the big Olympic push.

Watching Farah run, Ennis dominate multiple disciplines, Pendleton’s pedalling power, how could anyone not be inspired? Their success was the result of years of hard work, dedication but also a world-class training infrastructure. The contrast with basketball could not be clearer.

The GB programme was lavishly funded, justifiably, with the aim of making a ‘big bang’ explosion of success in the Olympic games.  The hope was that British children would be inspired to emulate a credible British team in the same way that the Dream Team wowed young Spanish kids like Rudy Fernandez and Ricky Rubio, or young Greeks who saw their team win EuroBasket 1987.

Perhaps in hindsight, with the expected success of a range of other sports already far higher up the food chain, this was always doomed to failure.

Speaking personally, your man here will be depressed for a while. We have what should be an incredible knockout stage of the Olympics to come this next week. The European domestic leagues will start in September, Euroleague in October. By the time the clocks go back, the the usual level of intrigue and excitement will be bubbling in the real basketball countries. I will be throwing myself into it with gusto.

A man without a country once more.

Rob Scott writes ‘Switching Screens’ every week for ELA. He also writes for and The Basketball Post. Follow him on Twitter @robscott33.