About Author

About

Ryan is a sports fanatic who came late to basketball having tried his hand at rugby, football and cricket in his formative years. He played in Ballymena for ten years, representing Team Grouse/Team Blackstone and has served as de facto Assistant Coach there in recent times. For nine of those years, Ryan led the Blackstone youth programme and assisted Paul McKee at St Patrick’s College, where they were crowned All-Ireland Schools champions in 2009. He has also introduced basketball to schools such as Limavady Grammar, Coleraine Inst and Ballymena Academy, where he currently works as an English teacher. In 2011 Ryan realised basketball was at its most beautiful played at a fast pace and subsequently hung up his one-speed Nikes. These days, he sticks to running, football and jujitsu.

BNI Boys Complete Final Preparations for Summer Slam 2013

BNI’s Under 14 boys capped off their preparations for this year’s Summer Slam tournament with back to back games against a Kerry select team on Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday’s opening game ended with a solid 36-29 win for the BNI team with Eoin Nagle, team captain, leading a strong starting five comprised of players from no less than four different clubs. Nagle was joined by his Belfast Star teammate John Smye, while Queens (Daniel Leggett), Tyrone Towers (Brian McNulty) and Letterkenny (Michael  Leadley) were all represented; highlighting the growing strength of player development throughout BNI.

Nagle controlled the tempo of the game well in the opening quarter and, overall, BNI’s offensive shape was good. McNulty established himself as a potential key player for the team showing strength, desire and explosiveness on the boards and early glimpses of a fine mid-range jump shot. The team’s spacing, and the outside threat of John Smye left enough space for Michael Leadley get several good looks underneath the basket. BNI needed to be more aggressive at times on offence, however, and the game stayed tight throughout.

An increase in defensive intensity in the second quarter saw BNI pull out into the lead as they helped and trapped aggressively.  On a number of occasions the intense ball pressure and quick help forced Kerry into bad passes which Robbie McAllister, Ethan Gibson and Mark McKearney all picked off to launch quick counter attacks. All five showed strong defensive instincts and the rebounding of Daragh Morgan and John Moran provided a solid platform for McKearney to launch a more effective fast break than the first quarter. Morgan and McAllister kept the Kerry defence very much on the back foot throughout, attacking the gaps hard, getting to the hoop or drawing fouls.

The second and third quarters saw the arrival of Pearse Braiden, Corin McMonagle and John Toner into the game. Braiden has shown that he can be a valuable asset to the BNI team with his strength, rebounding and touch around the basket, while McMonagle and Toner (both dangerous shooters) and crucial depth at the guard position. Both can be a viable shooting threat from the perimeter.

During the fourth quarter, BNI reinstated Nagle, McNulty and Smye and looked to make greater use of the pick-and-roll as a way of penetrating the key to draw the help defence and find the open shooter. The game remained competitive, however, and Kerry reduced the lead to just five points before Daniel Leggett showed the deftest of touches to seal the game with an excellent baseline floater.

[Back Row L-R] Adam Murray (Asst Coach), Pearse Braiden, Daniel Leggett, Daragh Morgan, Brian McNulty, John Smye, Michael Leadley, John Moran, Ryan Hayes (Head Coach) [Front Row L-R] Robbie McAllister, Mark McKearney, Eoin Nagle (Capt.), Corin McMonagle, John Toner, Ethan Gibson

[Back Row L-R] Adam Murray (Asst Coach), Pearse Braiden, Daniel Leggett, Daragh Morgan, Brian McNulty, John Smye, Michael Leadley, John Moran, Ryan Hayes (Head Coach)
[Front Row L-R] Robbie McAllister, Mark McKearney, Eoin Nagle (Capt.), Corin McMonagle, John Toner, Ethan Gibson

       Sunday’s second meeting with Kerry brought a solid performance but a three point loss, 28-31. Although the game was tight, it was BNI who got into the early lead and held it for three-quarters of the game. McMonagle and Smye both made scores from long range in the opening quarter and thereafter Smye in particular found himself closely guarded for the rest of the game. Smye is a key offensive player for BNI and will need to use his shooting threat more and more as a decoy to open up drives to the basket when he finds himself under such defensive scrutiny.

The game provided BNI with the opportunity to experiment offensively and to look at different combinations on the floor.  The threat of Michael Leadley inside left Daragh Morgan wide open at the top of the key, and this high-low movement is something BNI will likely want to use again in Scotland. Mark McKearney’s second-quarter performance was very impressive as the Dungannon point guard played at high tempo, continually harassed the dribbler and dived for loose balls. BNI then shifted to a two-guard offence, initially with Nagle and McKearney, but used various combinations of players, including McAllister, Gibson, McMonagle and Leggett.

For much of the final quarter, BNI sought to open their designated shooter by running him baseline and providing screens. Smye, Morgan and Toner were all given an opportunity to run the baseline and will likely be given the chance to do so again in Scotland.

The boys will now travel together with the BNI Girls to Edinburgh on Friday morning to compete in the Summer Slam invitational tournament and are scheduled to face Scotland, Luxembourg and CB Zaragoza from Spain. The tournament will tip off with a 2pm game against Luxembourg this Friday, before the boys play Zaragoza at 7.30pm. Scotland are Saturday’s opponents at midday, with a busy evening planned, including a VIP reception and Scotland vs England Senior Men’s game at 8pm. The tournament concludes for BNI at midday on Sunday.

BNI U14 Boys Squad:

Ethan Gibson                G      Belfast Star

Robbie McAllister       G      Blackwater Steelers

Mark McKearney        G      Tyrone Towers

Corin McMonagle       G      North Star

Eoin Nagle (Capt.)       G       Belfast Star

John Toner                   G      Queens

Pearse Braiden            F       Lisburn

Daniel Leggett             F       Queens

John Moran                 F        Belfast Star

Daragh Morgan          F        Tyrone Towers

John Smye                   F        Belfast Star

Brian McNulty            F/C     Tyrone Towers

Michael Leadley         C       Letterkenny

Campaign to reinstate GB Basketball funding pays dividends

After a concerted campaign, supported by a number of high profile figures including FIBA General Secretary Patrick Baumann, the NBA Commissioner David Stern and Euroleague chief Jordi Romeu, UK Sport have decided to grant funding to GB Basketball for the Rio 2016 Olympic cycle.

         The announcement came on Friday with Liz Nicholl, UK Sport’s Chief Executive, saying: “UK Sport is delighted to be able to confirm that we will now be investing in two additional sports for the Rio cycle, taking the overall total to 44 sports. These sports have credible medal potential for 2016 or 2020.”

Roger Moreland, British Basketball’s Performance Chairman, was quick to emphasise that the sport had made a strong case for itself during Wednesday’s informal representation hearing, pointing out that “we successfully presented compelling new performance data, which not only impressed the Board but made them recognise that we are potential podium contenders for 2020.”

Team-GB-mens-basketball-London-2012-Olympic-G_2807692

GB Basketball celebrate

Moreland paid particular tribute to the support given by FIBA, who he said “played a crucial part in our success by demonstrating through technical information, how much progress we have made over the last 7 years as well as our position globally.”

That technical information proved crucial to the success of Wednesday’s hearing and in his official response to the decision, the Minister for Sport, Hugh Robertson MP, described the decision as “good news”. He added, “I am delighted that at their informal representations, both Basketball and Wheelchair Fencing, were able to produce new performance data that showed that they have a realistic chance of getting a medal in 2020.”

Team GB’s biggest star, Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls, went one further: “Today’s announcement by UK Sport is incredible news for not only us as a team but for the future development of the sport of basketball…we have to now deliver on a number of levels and ensure that the legacy of 2012 and indeed the last six years is established and continues to grow between now and Rio. In 2016 we aim to reward today’s decision with a medal!”

Realistically, the target for GB Basketball now is to medal in 2020 and FIBA’s Patrick Baumann certainly feels that they are now in a strong position to do just that. “The new funding will allow the sport to build on the progress and growth it has already made in a very short time and aim for a podium place in 2020,” he said.

Indeed, building on their excellent progress thus far is an absolute must for the directors , coaches and players of Team GB. The size of the funding has yet to be specified and when it does it come, will be contingent upon basketball meeting a strict set of requirements as pointed out in UK Sport’s statement: “[the] award will be on a one year conditional basis with the following three years funding released only on the fulfilment of strict performance criteria.”

“We will now enter into a dialogue with UK Sport about the actual details and level of funding as well the support services required,” said Moreland. “This is a momentous day for British Basketball and everyone who is connected with the sports, whether players, fans or officials.”

UK Sport to hear basketball’s case today

GB Basketball will take the first step in a potentially lengthy appeals process today, over UK Sport’s decision to scrap its funding. Should they fail to make a strong enough case, the very future of international basketball in Great Britain will be thrown into grave doubt.

      Roger Moreland, Chairman, and other members of the GB board will meet with the board of UK Sport at 2pm this afternoon when they will have a 40 minute informal hearing in which to plead their case. UK Sport will issue an official response by this Friday at the latest and, based on the results of today’s hearing, GB Basketball will decide whether or not to launch a full formal appeal.

Should the initial case be soundly rejected by UK Sport today, GB Basketball will be faced with some very tough decisions regarding the future of the country’s international squad. However, it seems unlikely that the case will fail today’s first test.

The momentum behind the campaign has picked up considerably in the last few weeks with a host of figures joining the fight for funding. NBA star Luol Deng has written to Prime Minister David Cameron this week, in a letter published by The Daily Mail on Monday. In it, he reminds the PM that currently 27% of 11-15 year-olds play basketball in Britain, placing the sport second only to football in terms of participation.

Luol Deng of Team GB basketball

Luol Deng – Chicago Bulls and Team GB

Deng spoke in his letter of the immense “honour and pride” of representing Team GB and sought to meet the critics head on, saying, “The sport needs more input from other resources I totally agree, but then let’s force the sport as a whole to live up to its promises and its potential but we need this funding in order for that to happen…I get to see firsthand what this sport has done for kids in the UK and it’s too valuable just to be chucked away.”

In the letter, the Chicago Bulls guard also drew the Prime Minister’s attention to Sam Neter’s petition to Fund British Basketball which he has signed, and which we TCC would strongly urge you to sign, too.

GB Basketball’s appeal against the decision has also seen significant backing within the corridors of Westminster this week, with a Parliamentary debate last night, prompted by the MP for Chester and long-time Jets fan, Stephen Mosley, MP. In the discussion, a number of MPs strongly backed the campaign and sought clarification on basketball’s position from Hugh Robertson, Minister for Sport.

Robertson, however, overtly backed UK Sport insisting that the funding system works. “Our elite performance system in this country is the envy of almost every other Olympic system in the world,” he added.

The Minister was somewhat critical, too, of basketball’s return at the London Olympics, as well as their administration. “They did only win one [Olympic pool match], which is not a great performance record I have to say for all the fact that they may be on fast improving pathway,” said Robertson.

He went on to say that “it is a sport that has the ability to reach into communities in a way that some other sports are unable to do, and yet it somehow fails constantly to just catch light … I think there have been in the past some weaknesses in the structure of the way the sport has been delivered.”

Hugh Robertson, MP, Minister for Sport, basked UK Sport's funding system

Hugh Robertson, MP, Minister for Sport, basked UK Sport’s funding system

Robertson’s response to MPs last night was measured and in it he placed the onus firmly on GB Basketball’s new Chairman to look inward and address the weaknesses in governance that both he feels have led to a perceived under-achievement. He firmly insisted that basketball needs to “take a real hardnosed look at what needs to be done,” to “make use of those experts, in academia, in UK sport, and really turn this sport inside out.”

There is certainly a grain of truth in what Robertson had to say about the structures within basketball, however, his claims will be strongly mitigated at today’s hearing by the presence of the FIBA General Secretary Patrick Baumann who flew into London last night.

The head of the world federation has long been GB Basketball’s most critical assessor, having set a very high bar for the Team GB to overcome in a short space of time. Baumann shrank the goalposts several times in the lead-up to the London Olympics before feeling confident enough to allow British basketball to even take part in its home games, and now says “there is a good level of confidence at FIBA in GB Basketball.

patrick baumann

Patrick Baumann, FIBA General Secretary, head of world basketball

Baumann’s support is perhaps the weightiest in GB’s case, and he has been critical of UK Sports backtracking on funding. “UK Sport gave quite clear indications to us that their support was to remain through to Rio in 2016,” he said.

In the lead up to the Olympics, GB Basketball had “complied with everything we have asked of them at FIBA” and “put their house in order,” according to Baumann, who added that “British Basketball have done more than their share of what they were supposed to do, that’s the reason why I feel strongly I want to support their appeal against a decision which for us which for us remains incomprehensible.”

The strong backing of such a substantial voice in world basketball makes it seem unlikely that GB Basketball will not have a strong enough case to get past today’s hearing at the least, and although the Hugh Robertson was supportive of the funding system in place, he did offer a glimmer of hope for Britain’s basketball fans.

“If they have got the terms of that appeal right, and many of the points made tonight will form part of that appeal, then it strikes me that they will have a case that is going to provoke some further thought,” he told The Commons last night.

TCC Backs Campaign To Restore British Basketball Funding

This week, TCC friend and Hoopsfix.com founder, Sam Neter joined forces with Leicester Riders’ GM Russ Levenston to launch the ‘Fund British Basketball’ campaign and, today, we are proud to throw our support behind the initiative.

      

Will we ever see Deng in a GB jersey again?

Will we ever see Deng in a GB jersey again?

Neter and Levenston have launched a new website to publicise the campaign and have also taken advantage of the Government’s e-petition legislation to challenge UK Sport’s decision. An All-Party Parliamentary group has already been established by MPs supporting basketball and, under current legislation, should Neter and Levenston’s petition reach 100,000 names, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons.

With this in mind, TCC urge you, the people whose voices matter, to sign the petition, here.

The move comes after a host of high-profile figures from the world of basketball and the wider sporting community expressed their bewilderment at the funding cut. Perhaps the weightiest contribution came from the NBA Commissioner; in the week when the world’s elite basketball league brought its star athletes to UK for a competitive league game in front of thousands of British hoops fans, David Stern described the funding decision as “stunning.”

“If the government doesn’t lead in some way, it becomes an issue,” added Stern, who must be concerned that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport are not treating basketball with the same degree of seriousness that has led his organisation to start exploring the possibility of a London-based NBA franchise.

Patrick Baumann, the FIBA General Secretary, was equally baffled by the sudden withdrawal of support, saying that it was both “incomprehensible” and “brutal”. According to The Times, Baumann has written to the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, expressing the world governing body’s growing concern.

In my article on 24th December, shortly after the news broke, I outlined some of the reasons why we in Basketball Northern Ireland, should feel aggrieved about the funding cut, too, and I encourage each one of you to sign the e-petition.

The major issue for BNI is that, while its status as part of the wider Basketball Ireland organisation leaves it outside the British Basketball fold, it also leaves N.Ireland’s hoops fans without senior international representation. Moreover, in terms of demographics, the possibility of BI not only reinstating the Senior International programmes but making them competitive and even qualifying for the Olympics, World Championship, or Eurobasket Finals is about as remote as it has ever been.

It then follows that Team GB is the only way Northern Ireland’s young basketball players and fans will ever be able to cheer on a team of their own at the highest level of international basketball. It is undeniably the exposure of our kids to basketball of the highest standard that will inspire them to pick up a basketball, to fall in love with the game as we have, and to feel that they, too, can aspire and achieve on the court.

With this in mind, I and others here at TCC take the view that what is good for British basketball is good for Northern Irish basketball; and what has a negative impact on British basketball, its development and media exposure, will have equally negative knock-on consequences for Northern Irish basketball.

Joel Freeland of the Portland Trailblazers in action for GB vs Team USA

Joel Freeland of the Portland Trailblazers in action for GB vs Team USA

The NBA’s Deputy Commissioner, Adam Silver, agrees. “A national team does matter. People follow their Government’s expressed interest in particular sports, so we think it’s very important to the development of the sport for Team GB to be successful,” he insists.

Furthermore, it is my contention that with the lack of Irish international competitiveness, basketball in Ireland could one day, in the not so distant future, find itself facing a similar identity question to the one that has challenged football in recent years.

In the future could young player from NI have the option of playing for GB?

In the future could young player from NI have the option of playing for GB?

The renewed focus on elite player skill development at the junior level, pioneered by Adrian Fulton and Deirdre Brennan through their Northern Ireland Academy initiative, will inevitably start to have a real and positive effect the longer it continues and more focused it is.

Therefore, it is not inconceivable that Northern Ireland should, over the next decade, produce at least one player of real international pedigree. One need only look at the number of BNI youngsters who have gone on to compete at higher levels in the US, England and Europe, without any focused Academy programme in place. If coaches like ours can produce NCAA Division One prospects without the added impetus of the Academies programme (as they already have done), then we can reasonably anticipate similar success in the future.

Such development is likely, in my view, to lead to a scenario in which a young BNI prospect seeks FIBA’s endorsement to represent Team GB instead of Ireland (should there be a senior Irish international programme at the point). Given the precedent set by football’s governing body, FIFA, as well as the ruling of the European courts, FIBA might find such a request very hard to refuse.

Under dual-nationality rules, Northern Ireland’s IFA are unable to prevent its footballers representing the Republic of Ireland, and surely the same legislation would prevent FIBA from blocking a similar move from Ireland to Great Britain should a N. Irish player wish to challenge it.

This is, of course, a complex debate mired in politics, and not one on which TCC would ever wish to take sides. No matter how basketball develops in the lead up to 2016, it is important to reaffirm that the communities of basketball fans in the UK and Ireland are closely knit; that the game of basketball will thrive best if it develops and reaches its full potential in both nations; and that we fully support British Basketball’s fight for the funding it deserves, for the good of our game.

We at TCC are focused solely on the game and what is best for the game and the game’s fans. We believe in the game. We believe in its power to transform the lives of those who discover it. We believe in the confidence it instils in children, the camaraderie it inspires in adults, and the health it fosters in all. We believe our game deserves to be taken seriously; we believe it deserves equality of funding; we believe it deserves the same respect from the UK government as it has received from the wider sporting world.

We believe in Russ and Sam’s campaign. Sign the petition here, now.

UK Sport scrap funding for British Basketball

When Baroness Campbell, chair of UK Sport, said that “London 2012 was just the beginning, not the end, for Olympic and Paralympic sport in this country,” she clearly wasn’t talking about basketball.

     This week, basketball fell victim to UK Sport’s ‘No Compromise’ policy on funding for elite athletes, which means that the sport will lose its current funding and miss out its share of the £347 million allocated for the Rio 2016 and subsequent 2020 Olympic Games. This comes despite an overall funding increase of 11% which will be shared amongst some 42 summer sports, leaving basketball as one of only five poor relations.

Roger Moreland, Performance Director for British Basketball, spoke damningly of the decision: “Having been funded to the tune of £8.5 million in the lead up to the London Olympics because of the sport’s medal potential for the future, this is a devastating decision and is a waste of that investment,” he insisted.

Team GB

Certainly, Moreland can feel that the refusal to grant continued funding is an affront to his staff of players, coaches, managers and directors, who have made unparalleled progress in the growth of the elite level game since Team GB Basketball’s birth in 2006.

“Over the last five years, the GB teams have done the equivalent of going from League Two in football to the Premier League,” Moreland reminds us.

In fact, the decision to discontinue the funding will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows amongst basketball’s global hierarchy who must, once more, be wondering what exactly is going on. British Basketball has gone to great to lengths to bring the home federations (England, Scotland and, likely, Wales) together as a united family going forward and FIBA has been collaborating closely on this.

What is most bemusing about the cut is the lack of recognition for this important work: “Having dealt with those challenges [of unifying  the home federations into one GB federation] so constructively, the decision seems scant reward for embracing a change designed to realise medal potential,” muses Moreland.

Roger Moreland, Performance Director, British Basketball described the cut as a “devastating decision.”

What may add insult to injury for many basketball fans in the UK is that, while basketball did not claim any medals in London, a significant number of other sports which will keep their funding did not feature on the medals table either. Badminton, archery, fencing, and even women’s beach volleyball, all of which are outside the sporting ‘mainstream’ and did not win medals this year, will keep their UK Sport funding.

UK Sport, for their part, take the view that basketball in Britain does not have the “credible medal potential” outlined as a prerequisite for elite level funding during the Rio cycle, and it would certainly be specious to portray them as sporting Scrooges, given the 11% increase overall.

Liz Nicholl, the funding body’s Chief Executive, insists that “UK Sport’s priority was to get the right resources, to the right athletes, for the right reasons,” and as such, they stand by their decision to axe the basketball funding.

However, UK Sport does frame the ‘No Compromise’ policy in terms that would call the cuts in to question. According to their website, the policy “sets out to reinforce the best, support those developing and challenge the under-performing.”

It seems like quite a challenge to argue that our new national heroes are not amongst the ranks of “those developing”. Moreover, given the rapid momentum of that development over the last six years, the recent remarks of Hugh Robertson, MP, Minister for Sport, seem particularly strange. The allocation of new funding, he claims, “shows our desire to keep up the momentum from London 2012.” Quite.

The question UK Sport wishes to raise, then, seems to be whether or not British Basketball has developed far enough as well as fast enough. Team GB’s men and women recorded just one Olympic win between them in London (the men’s convincing win against China) and so administrators like Nicholl may be justified in wondering whether basketball is currently developing or under-performing.

Liz Nicholl, Chief Executive, UK Sport

Roger Moreland views the basketball performances at the London games from a much more optimistic and long-sighted viewpoint. “A few years back, many people said GB teams wouldn’t be competitive at the Olympics. We were. The men’s team lost by one point to eventual silver medallists, Spain, and soundly beat world ranked number 10, China. The women only lost on the last shot of over-time to France who won the silver medal,” reflected Moreland.

Certainly the Performance Chairman views basketball’s medal potential as only just coming to fruition in Rio and 2020 and speaks excitedly about the “fantastic talent pool in this country.” Furthermore, Moreland insists that “the first thing we will be doing is appealing this decision,” adding that, “we have the athletes with the potential to win medals and that’s what British Basketball intends to do.”

Should such an initial appeal fail to soften the stance of UK Sport, British Basketball will be left to do it the hard way once again. The current investment spans the next four years, as part of the Rio cycle, but is being administered as part of a longer 8 year pathway. As such, the funding will come under annual review, which may provide a glimmer of hope for hoops fans.

However,  facing the prospect of having to prove their worth on the court, as has continually been the case over the last six years, a huge onus will be placed on Team GB’s performances at next year’s EuroBasket Finals, which will be the men’s third consecutive appearance and the women’s second.

This creates an inevitable ‘Catch-22’ situation as Team GB are, essentially, reliant upon UK Sport’s £8.5 million funding. Moreland and his fellow directors have yet to appoint a new Head Coach and finding one of sufficiently high calibre may prove even more difficult given the dearth of ready money. The replacement of Chris Finch will prove crucial in continuing the sport’s long-term development towards Rio and beyond. Finch’s recent appointment as Assistant Coach of the NBA’s Houston Rockets speaks to the quality and rapidity of improvement of Team GB under his guidance.

Furthermore, securing the release of top NBA players such as Chicago’s Luol Deng and Portland’s Joel Freeland is heavily dependent upon adequately insuring these players against injury. That, as anyone can imagine, might run into astronomical figures. Significantly, too, British Basketball will be desperate to avoid any repeat of the on-off debacle that surrounded the eventual withdrawal of Charlotte’s Ben Gordon from the Team GB squad.

Britain’s Luol Deng dunks on LeBron James of the Miami Heat.

If Moreland and Team GB had been eyeing a medal challenge in 2016, 2020 or any of the Euros in between, this decision will undoubtedly make that a formidable challenge, but what may be even more detrimental to basketball’s development in the longer term is the aspirational deficit it will inevitably create at grass roots level should the sport’s progress hit the buffers.

Should Team GB be prevented from consolidating their development up to now, should they be prevented from securing the commitment of our elite players and coaches, or should they even fail to continue as a unified body, UK Sport’s decision will not have “challenged the under-performing” so much as choked the thriving.

One of the major concerns of the national federations of England, Scotland and particularly Wales, is over what implications the decision to merge into one over-arching basketball union might have on funding in the various regions and, although this current funding cut applies only to Team GB and not community basketball, there will be a whole raft of new concerns about just how serious UK Sport’s commitment to the sport really is.     That the funding cut will apply to the GB Under-20 programme, surely everyone in UK basketball will be wondering what the future holds for youth development as a whole.

From a Northern Irish perspective, this week’s decision could turn out to have a frustratingly negative impact as young players whose first experiences of watching and cheering on their own team at the highest level of international basketball came in the form of Team GB this summer and they could see that dream fade almost as quickly as it came into being.

Although BNI currently functions as a region of Basketball Ireland, Ireland is, quite despairingly, without a senior international team, and Team GB affords youngsters in NI their first opportunity to watch players from these islands compete against the very best in the world and think, one day that could be me.

Children from Tomlinscote School with their life-sized cardboard model of Team GB star, Luol Deng.

From a long term development point of view, it is vital that young people can have aspirations that are achievable, that they can see a clear and open path to the top of the game, and that they are taken seriously in their pursuit. When that does not happen, children see the highest reaches of the game as distant, unrealistic and as secondary to other interests. When that happens, children choose football, gaelic and rugby instead of basketball.

Sadly, it seems all too unlikely that Ireland will ever really be able to reach the top tier of the international game (given the regression at the elite level that has left the country with no national representation) and that leaves the fortunes of Ireland’s, and particularly Northern Ireland’s, youngsters tied up indirectly with the fortunes of Team GB. We should all be quite dismayed by UK Sport’s decision.

It is worth reflecting, in closing, on the demographics of those who make up the considerable majority of basketball’s grass roots participation in the UK and Ireland. Basketball is a game that thrives in the inner city. Look to Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Limerick for dominance of the game here. Moreover, what of inner city London, Birmingham, Manchester and others?

Roger Moreland sees this as central to the importance of basketball’s continued development as a vehicle not just for medals but for individual opportunity and social improvement in places where it is needed most. “There’s a fantastic talent pool in this country which comes from different parts of the community than the majority of sports UK Sport supports. They deserve better.”

BENJI – Promise Unfulfilled

ESPN Films, 30 for 30 – Benji – dir. Coodie and Chike

In the closing section of this, the last of a new series of ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, sportswriter Michael Wilbon says that Ben Wilson (the ‘Benji’ of the title) “represents promise unfulfilled”, and in piecing together the story of Wilson’s life and devastatingly premature death, Coodie and Chike have given credence to Wilbon’s claim that “nothing haunts us like that”.

Perhaps the most enduring appeal of sports is that it can be so easily understood as a microcosm of life itself: its competitiveness, its community, its rewards and its tragedy. What is equally true in sports and in life is that very few people ever come close to fulfilling their promise, to achieving their dreams, to transcending their roots.

Some, however, come closer than others and when such a person comes along, those of us who know them well find a place to pin each of our own faded hopes and dreams. It is a catharsis that many in Irish basketball will know from personal experience: how the promise of one young friend or teammate becomes, however momentarily, a collective promise; the promise that we, too, might see our ambitions played out through them.

Benji demonstrates quite clearly that such a feeling is not exclusive to small towns, that even in a large city like Chicago, fomenting with basketball talent, such feelings exist. Any large city is a patchwork of smaller communities and in a suburban neighbourhood harassed by gang and drug culture, the desire for a way out is palpable.

Indeed, one of the most striking things about Benji is the quasi-religious way in which young Ben Wilson’s death is viewed by many of those featured in the documentary. It is both startling and moving to hear grown men, including school friends and neighbours of Wilson’s, speak about him as “much more than a basketball player”, as a “Little Messiah”. It becomes apparent, at times, that there remains more than one promise unfulfilled – not just the great promise that Wilson himself had as the number one ranked basketball prospect in the country, but the promise that “he would have taken us on some of that ride too”; that he might deliver friends such as Mario Coleman and others to “the promised land, so that we can make a difference and we can be where we want to be.”

The summer of 1984 was a golden summer for Benjamin Wilson, the 6’7” seventeen-year-old centre for Simeon Vocational High School on Chicago’s south side. He had just led Simeon to its first ever Illinois State Championship and, after attending Sonny Vaccaro’s “Athletes for Better Education” Camp, became the number one ranked basketball prospect in the country going into his senior year.

Wilson was no ordinary High School centre; he was, by now, a household name in the city that produced a host of NBA starlets like Mo Cheeks, Doc Rivers and Tim Hardaway; a city bristling with excitement at the arrival of a number one draft pick by the name of Michael Jordan.

A “sweet and smooth” player, Wilson was drawing the sort of hype that implied he might be better than all of them and attracted the overtures of respected college coaches around the country, including Indiana’s Bobby Knight and Illinois’s Lou Henson. With his relentless work ethic, Wilson perfected his game and, even at seventeen, “he could do everything that the pro players could do,” explains Henson.

‘Benji’ depicted in one of the film’s atmospheric animations

Sonny Vaccaro, the man responsible for taking MJ to Chicago that year, insists that the potential of Benjamin Wilson cannot be overestimated, that he was basketball’s first ever High School phenom and the forerunner of today’s biggest living legends in the sport. “Ben Wilson was my Kevin Garnett, my Tracy McGrady, my Kobe Bryant, my Lebron James. He opened the world of basketball’s eyes,” enthuses Vaccaro.

Unfortunately, while Chicago in the early-mid 1980s was a place of great change and even hope, with its first black Mayor (Harold Washington), the arrival of Michael Jordan, the disquieted voice of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the emergence of Oprah, it was also facing a growing problem with drugs and gang trouble. It was this boiling social turmoil that led indirectly to Chicago’s basketball community losing its so-called “chosen” one.

On November 20 1984, with everyone expecting him to lead Simeon to a second successive State Championship, and with the road to sporting greatness stretched out before him, Benjamin Wilson’s life was ended by a random act of violence. Chicago was cast in shadow – some 10,000 people are reported to have attended his funeral – and the name of Ben Wilson entered into the city’s mythology.

With Benji, Coodie and Chike have produced a hugely important piece of film and one that will help ensure that the memory of this bright and dedicated young man lives on. They present the story of Ben Wilson’s death sensitively, delicately and without judgment, allowing the main protagonists to recount the events as they remember them and without imposing too much of themselves in the form of narration.

Most impressively, the directors have expertly constructed a film that exposes the many layers of tragedy which surround the events of that November day in 1984. From the explicit tragedy of the murder of a seventeen year old and its impact on his family and friends, through the tragedy of unfulfilled promise in all its forms, to the deeper-lying tragedy of the drugs and gang culture that led his killer to commit an uncharacteristic crime, Coodie and Chike have taken a broad and impartial view. In giving voice to Wilson’s legacy, they allow each individual voice to be heard without bias and remind us that the destruction of a young life in such a sudden and incomprehensible way leaves behind it many victims.

In the end, we are reminded that out of the darkest days comes new light. The immediate and courageous response of Wilson’s mother that, “it’s not how long you live but how well you live,” gives way to a lasting legacy that has inspired new hope. The money raised for needy teens in Chicago’s crime-ridden suburbs, and the lawsuit that forced the City government to revise its emergency trauma procedures have undoubtedly saved countless lives since Wilson’s death.

Moreover, the example set by Ben Wilson and the way in which his memory continues to inspire young Simeon HS athletes to strive for success has been a catalyst for the fulfilment of a great deal of promise. Most recently, a new wave of phenoms such as Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker have given a nod to Wilson, wearing his legendary #25 at Simeon. “I wanted to be just like him…he still lives on,” says Parker.

Benjamin Wilson may or may not have turned out to be the ‘Little Messiah’ his fans and friends had hoped, but through his heart-breaking and untimely death he has become a saviour and a hero to many. Perhaps this story is not really about basketball. Perhaps, as Chike claims, it transcends way beyond that.

– Ryan Hayes

 

Benji airs on Wednesday 21November at 7pm on ESPN America.

Rockets shown no mercy as DCU secure opening victory

BELFAST – What looked like a potentially close-fought contest between the Ulster Rockets and DCU Mercy in the opening week of the Nivea Women’s Super League was unpredictably all but over before the half, with DCU cruising to an eventual 52-69 victory.

That both teams had to play without their newest American imports due to residency rules leant the game a slightly surreal quality and the feeling that Saturday’s encounter was no true indicator of where either team will be in a few months’ time.

Last years DCU Mercy Championship team.

Last years DCU Mercy Championship team.

Moreover, the Rockets went in to the game at De La Salle without the combined experience of three likely starters: Mairead McNally, Noleen Lennon and Caroline Stewart. With the addition of these three, and the arrival of former UWIC forward Meagan Hoffman in the DCU starting line-up in the coming months, both teams should expect to see improvements.

For DCU, last season’s league and cup runners-up who had four debutants on show in Belfast, another tilt at the silverware seems a realistic target based on the ruthlessness with which they opened this game. The visitors ran up a fourteen point lead in the first quarter as they capitalised on the Rockets’ lack of early intensity.

The Rocket’s started slowly, their 2-3 zone not quite aggressive enough in pressuring the ball on top, nor alert enough to the movements of the DCU players dropping deep to the baseline behind them, and the visitors scored almost at will, racking up an impressive 27 points for the quarter.

Offensively, the Rockets found some success in the form of Fionnuala Toner and Meghan Houlihan inside, and managed to get to the free-throw line on a couple of occasions late in the quarter. However, while their 2-3 shape should have provided opportunities for an organised fast-break attack, the Rockets were slow out of the back court preferring to dribble and slow the play, much to their detriment.

DCU played an aggressive brand of man-to-man defence and found themselves in the team-fouls penalty in all four quarters, but Coach Mark Ingle should not be unduly concerned as the intensity of their efforts was the key to their success.

The introduction of Aisling Murray gave the Rockets am injection of pace

The introduction of Aisling Murray gave the Rockets am injection of pace

In a passage of play that typified the game, DCU’s 5’9 guard and eventual top scorer, Sarah Woods sank a pull-up jump shot with less than 30 seconds to play in the first quarter. Then, on the next play, her team’s tough defence forced a fourth consecutive turnover from the hosts. As PG Lindsey Peat broke with the ball from the turnover, Woods faded to the wide-open weak side to knock down the three-pointer and knock the wind out of the Rockets with seconds on the clock.

The introduction of Aisling Murray in the second quarter gave the Rockets a brief injection of pace and urgency on the break, but things soon slowed down again with energetic and experienced guard under-used in the point-guard stakes.

DCU’s tough defensive play continued to stifle the Rockets’ attack, holding them scoreless for the first twelve possessions of the second quarter. The home team failed to make any impact in the key, instead settling for outside shots that came to little, while DCU’s 6’0 post, Ailish McLaughlin posed a continual threat on the other end.

With 4:36 to play in the half, Coach Breda Dick called time-out to switch her own team’s defence to man. The change in defensive approach permeated her team’s offensive play too, and they started to look more dynamic. Again, Fionnuala Toner was at the heart of most of the Rockets’ brighter play.

In a purple spell for the hosts, Toner managed to find Ciara O’Neill wide open on the left side from a dribble penetration before feeding Helena Fairbairn for the score on an intelligent baseline pick-and-roll play. She soon added a basket of her own on baseline spin and fade, before stealing the ball on the subsequent defensive play.

When Niamh Toner drove hard to the basket late in the quarter and completed the three-point play from the FT line, the deficit was cut to thirteen and things seemed to be looking up for the Rockets. However, as with the end of the first quarter, DCU fired back immediately with a quick three-pointer on the break and the Dubliners went in 22-39 up at half-time.

The restart saw a concerted effort by the Rockets to get themselves back in the game. Their best play came when they pushed the tempo on offence and looked to trap aggressively on defence, although not often enough.

The third period brought a wider contribution from the Rockets squad with Fionnuala Toner, Niamh Toner, Helena Fairbairn and Meghan Houlihan all finding the target, the highlight coming when Houlihan faked Hoffman on the left side before sinking a one-dribble pull-up shot to shrink the deficit to just nine points.

With the visitors’ lead cut to single figures for the first time, and only forty seconds left in the quarter, it was starting to look like they had a game on their hands. However, like the previous two quarters, when things got close, DCU’s offence found a quick answer. This time it was Sarah Woods who pulled up on the fast break in the last ten seconds, her bank shot stretching DCU’s lead back to eleven.

Woods’ rapid response must have had some psychological effect on the Rockets players, particularly after their valiant efforts in the third quarter, because they opened the fourth with eight successive scoreless possessions.

Again it was Woods to draw first blood, and an impressive score it was, facing her defender up and kissing it in off the glass. The Rockets can be commended for their defensive persistence in the early part of the final period but going into the last seven minutes of play, the task suddenly took on a Herculean aspect yet again.

Lindsay Peat stepped up to the top of the arc on a reverse ball and, with Woods wide open and calling from the corner, drained the triple. Eighteen point lead. On the very next play, however, Peat did what all good point guards do: the selfless deed. Penetrating the top of the key and drawing the help defender up from the baseline, Peat fed the previously neglected Woods the deftest of passes for a short baseline jump shot.

This seasons Ulster Rockets team

This seasons Ulster Rockets team

With 6:42 to play, and the Rockets suddenly finding themselves behind by eighteen again, Coach Dick called for the 2-3 zone again, seeking some defensive solidity. Mental fatigue soon played its part, however, as the home team fixed its eyes on the ball and got caught napping when Peat again found Woods, this time on a back door cut to the hoop.

Fionnuala Toner produced a late crowd-pleasing play in the last three minutes when she intercepted a loose pass and went coast-to-coast for a lay-up, taking her personal points total to twenty.

With the lead now at an insurmountable twenty-three points, Ingle took Sarah Woods out of the game for the last time, a sure sign that DCU Head Coach felt the job was done. Woods top scored with twenty-five points and was undoubtedly the game’s MVP.

DCU host the Liffey Celtics this coming Sunday, while the Rockets next play Team Montenotte in Cork on November 3.

Celebration and commemoration for Tyrone Towers

DUNGANNON – The 30th annual Tyrone Towers Summer Camp was launched this Monday (13th August) at St Patrick’s College in Dungannon, under the expert guidance of its new coaching director Ed Randolph. Randolph, all-time top scorer at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, and former player with Sporting Belfast and Killester, has taken over from fellow American Jerome Westbrooks in what is a hugely significant year for the club.

Coaching Director, Ed Randolph

Coaching Director, Ed Randolph

Monday morning was not just a moment of pride for the camp organisers in Dungannon, having successfully reached the 30 year milestone, but it was also particularly poignant that it should take place almost one year after the death of Frankie O’Loane, the man who made it all happen.

When Frankie arrived in Dungannon in 1972, as PE teacher at St Patrick’s College, he was already a gaelic football player of the highest repute, having captained Bellaghy to two All-Ireland Club Championships, and a more than able rugby player, too. However, it was from the basketball court on the Killymeal Road that Frankie would change the sporting landscape of Northern Ireland and leave a permanent, indelible mark behind.

“The College won two All-Ireland titles and countless Ulster Cups during his tenure in the school,” Ronan Campbell, one of the Camp Directors, points out. “Frankie also found time to coach both Ulster and Irish junior international teams throughout the 1980s and 1990s,” he adds. Moreover, as late as 2008, having retired from teaching due to ill-health, Frankie continued to coach the school’s Under 16 girls’ team, guiding them all the way to yet another All-Ireland final.

It was also under the guidance of Frankie O’Loane that the club, too, reached its zenith. In 1982, Dungannon entered the Irish National Basketball League, playing first in the National League Division Two and then quickly rising to join the ranks of the Irish Superleague under Frankie’s stewardship.

As a basketball coach, Frankie enjoyed the highest esteem of his players and colleagues but many people, including TCC’s own Niall McDermott, are quick to point out that Frankie’s legacy extends even further beyond the exploits of his Dungannon teams in All-Ireland competition. “Not many people know that he  helped found North Star, Basketball Club” says McDermott, proud to be associated with the man. “Ten years ago, when he was Development Officer, he came to Derry and held a meeting with all the lads up here and helped us set up our own club. Frankie was basketball in the west.”

As Basketball Development Officer with Sport NI, Frankie had a profound impact on the growth of the game throughout Northern Ireland, particularly in the underdeveloped west. The legacy of his work encouraging and supporting basketball around the country is felt not just in Derry, where North Star have competed for ten years with teams in both the Premier League and lower divisions, and now host a camp of their own, but also by the League as a whole.

In BNI’s three senior men’s divisions, well established teams now compete in Omagh, Limavady, Fermanagh, and many others. Frankie’s impact upon the early germination of such clubs may be a distant memory and, in some cases, an indirect one but no-one in Northern Irish basketball would deny that his work west of the Bann helped nourish the basketball renaissance there.

Frankie O'Loane

Coach Frankie O’Loane

Indeed, Frankie O’Loane was a gifted organiser, recruiter and manager of people, and he used these talents to their fullest in establishing the Tyrone Towers Summer Camp. Frankie travelled to America where he undertook a coaching clinic led by the legendary John Wooden, basketball’s greatest ever coach. Returning with a wealth of new ideas and the most trusted of coaching principles, Frankie launched the first ever camp in 1982.

This year, on the thirtieth anniversary of that first camp, the legacy lives on; every one of the current coaching staff is a disciple of Frankie O’Loane in one way or another, having played or coached for him, while the number of campers has exceeded 100 yet again. Sarah McGahan, camp coach, indicated just how much Frankie has been in the minds of the staff this year when I asked for her thoughts about the milestone anniversary and the large turnout of campers. “It’s just great. To think that it has lasted for so long and been such a success. Frankie started it all. When you look at it this year, I think he’d have been really proud.”

In tribute to their ‘Mr Basketball’ the organisers of Summer Camp 2012 have dedicated this year’s Charity All-Star Game to Frankie’s memory. The game, this Wednesday at Dungannon Leisure Centre (7.30pm) will see a ‘Camp Select’ take on the Tyrone Towers of the BNI Premier League, with the £3 admission donated to the Chest, Heart and Stroke Foundation.

London 2012 draw pits Team GB against European Champions

By RYAN HAYES

The draw for the London 2012 Olympic basketball tournament which took place in Rio de Janeiro earlier today (Monday) has placed Great Britain in Group B alongside back-to-back Eurobasket Champions and World Number 2, Spain.

The drawing of the groups certainly marks the start of a period of intensified preparation for the coaches of the national teams involved, but will finally make the Olympic Games a much more palpable prospect for those players lucky enough to be vying for a place in the final squad selections.

Team GB Head Coach Chris Finch has admitted that seeing the draw made has provided both new focus and a certain amount of relief. “The coaches and players have been waiting for this day for months, if not years. Now we can begin preparing for our opponents,” he said.

Chris Finch and Team GB at the London 2012 Test Event last year

While the fans may well have been hoping for a marquee match-up with Mike Krzyzewski’s USA, the GB camp will no doubt be relieved to have dodged the bullet. Their final pre-tournament warm-up game against the reigning Olympic Gold Medallists will provide the sort of challenge that GB will need to prepare themselves for the games against Spain, Australia, China, Brazil and whoever qualifies for the final spot, but advancing to the knock-out phase will still prove difficult.

“At this level, there are no easy groups and the draw proved that every game at the Olympics will be really tough,” insists Coach Finch. Indeed, Team GB face three countries all ranked within the World’s Top Ten in Spain (2), Australia (9) and China (10), while Brazil sit just outside in 13th.

Throw into that equation the potential arrival of Greece (4), Lithuania (5), Russia (11), Angola (15) or Puerto Rico (16), all of whom are involved in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Caracas in July, and you begin to see the size of the task facing Finch’s men who are ranked a relatively lowly 43rd

Team GB are not, however, without confidence and nor should they be. There is a surge of optimism amid the camp, helped by the conspiring of a number of positive factors. Firstly, the home side can safely acknowledge that they have avoided landing in the tougher of the two groups.

Luol Deng against Australia last year

Group A includes two sides with formidable Olympic experience – France and Argentina – as well as two empty berths waiting to be filled by two of the previously mentioned qualifiers whom Team GB would wish to avoid.

Chris Spice, Team GB’s performance director, was upbeat. “We can’t complain about that draw in the men’s, it gives us something to shoot at,” he said. “The big unknown for us I suppose is Brazil. We have either played everybody else or will possibly have met them in a warm-up.”

That Brazil are taking part in several friendly warm-up games against teams heading to Caracas for the OQT will give the Team GB coaching staff a perfect opportunity to scout them against opponents of the right calibre. That, at least, should ensure that no big surprises await in the group stage.

Perhaps most reassuringly, Team GB can take a huge amount of confidence from their most recent performances against two of Group B’s other major sides, Australia and China. In the Olympic Test Event held in London last August, Britain enjoyed a significant victory over China by 8 points before losing very narrowly, 91-90 to Australia in a cracking game.

Joel Freeland will be vital to Team GB at London 2012

The event was designed as an opportunity to test the logistical management of London 2012’s basketball venue and staff but served as a welcome test of just how far Team GB have come in a very short time. Their last appearance in the Olympic Games was as hosts back in 1948 and it is worth stressing that Great Britain only became a FIBA member  in 2005, competing in just two Eurobasket tournaments in their history.

While there is a lot of progress still to be made, Coach Finch has assembled a squad that can at least now realistically compete in the international game. This was demonstrated by the solid team performances in the test event and by the important contributions of key individuals. Joel Freeland (Unicaja Malaga) was instrumental in the victory over China with a double-double (18 and 13) while Britain’s first truly legitimate basketball superstar, Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls, recorded 26pts and 9 rebounds in the loss to Australia.

Reasons to be positive, then.

With the weight of home advantage and the top four of six advancing, Team GB has an excellent chance of reaching the tournament’s latter stages. However, it seems as sure as the rising sun that the USA will top Group A at a canter which will leave everyone in Group B, including Team GB, desperate to finish higher than fourth.

Juan Carlos Navarro and Pau Gasol lift the 2011 Eurobasket trophy

With a starting five that includes four NBA stars (P. Gasol, M. Gasol, Rudy Fernandez and Jose Calderon) and their equally world-class captain, Juan Carlos Navarro of FC Barcelona, Spain only narrowly missed out on gold in Beijing four years ago and will be looking to go one step further in London.

La Roja are clear favourites to top Group B but how the dust settles after that is anyone’s guess.