Basketball: towards 2012

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When three teams took a time out from the British Basketball League, opportunity knocked for London United, the little club with big ambitions in the run-up to 2012

  • Imagine Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United telling the football authorities they’d like a break from playing in the Premier League. Different scale it may be, but that was exactly the scenario facing basketball’s rulers during the summer when top teams Brighton Bears, Birmingham Bullets and London Towers asked for a sabbatical from the British Basketball League (BBL). The Bears needed a time out to deal with management problems, the Bullets couldn’t find a suitable home venue while the Towers withdrew due to owner Costi Zombanakis’s belief that the BBL lacked direction.

    As a result, the BBL, which operates a franchise system, drafted in two teams from the semi-pro English Basketball League: Worcester Wolves and London United. Back in August, the challenge for both was to move quickly to a professional set-up; four weeks before tip-off, United had signed just one player.

    Since then, however, director of basketball Jack Majewski has assembled a squad who won their first two away games and look capable of competing at this level. On Saturday, United make their home debut against Sheffield Sharks, one of the sport’s traditional powerhouses, at the SPACE Centre in Hackney.

    While the BBL has built its reputation on imported American players, a cornerstone of United’s philosophy is to give British prospects a chance – especially with 2012 in mind. ‘For a long time now, the most promising English talent has disappeared to US colleges,’ says Majewski. ‘There is an absolute priority for London United and also English basketball to establish properly organised junior programmes.’

    Ten of the 15 players on the roster are English, while the club has a partnership with basketball academies at Richmond College and Hackney Community College. Both play in the UK and abroad to create, as Majewski puts it, ‘a scenario where talented young players have the chance to practise every day and compete against top foreign opposition. That is the only way to stop them going to mediocre schools in the USA and use them to the benefit of English basketball.’

    In addition, United run ‘Hoops for Health’ and ‘Dunk the Junk’ programmes in schools across seven London boroughs; a coachload of pupils from Eltham C of E Primary School, the Greenwich champions, will be among the crowd on Saturday. Not bad for a club founded only four years ago.

    This, though, is just the start. In a sport long fractured by conflicts of interest, which led to funding for 2012 being frozen until a single governing body could be agreed on, United’s vision is impressively clear. ‘Our mission is to provide a world-class city with a world-class professional basketball team,’ says general manager David Schiller.

    This means developing links with top European clubs such as Besiktas Istanbul and Kaunas from Lithuania, thus appealing to the new communities coming to the capital from countries where the sport is strong. It means playing in European club tournaments, giving London a presence for the first time since the Towers competed in the mid-1990s. And it means aspiring to move from the 600-capacity SPACE Centre to the O2, aka the Millennium Dome, which is earmarked as an Olympic venue.

    When United’s entry to the BBL was announced, Majewski stated: ‘We are convinced London needs a high-quality basketball organisation’. Three months on, London’s got it.

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