As an emerging sport in the UK, basketball is experiencing a rise in participation with new clubs for children starting all the time. Bury St Edmunds, in the heart of Suffolk, saw the start of its first youth National League team last season. Only eight nervous players showed up to the first under 13s preseason practice in an old, dusty gym. It was clear that they were, indeed, well under 13. Asics, Air Force Ones and Cicas were among the unsuitable footwear that hesitantly squeaked across the wooden floor.
Pre-season practices flew by and after loading up three family cars, we convoyed down the M11 to Waltham Forest to play Eastside Eagles in our first game of the season. With only six players on the team list, I soon learned that eight were required for the game to go ahead. So, suiting up in what resembled jersey dresses and three quarter length basketball trousers, two of the players’ younger brothers made the required transition from spectators to players. Forty minutes later we had suffered a dislocated thumb, a hospital visit and a loss by a large margin.
This first game was a good indication of how the rest of the season would go. We would suffer multiple dislocated digits, sprained ankles and an Achilles strain and would lose a lot more games. However, it also became clear that the players’ defiant enthusiasm wouldn’t falter. Isaac and Freddie, the youngest on the team, were a floppy haired double act who showed this gritty determination every game. Although they were a great deal smaller than the other players in the league, their speed and relentlessness allowed them to face even the older, more experienced players. Isaac would get some Nike Hyperdunks with his nickname, “Izee,” embroidered on the tongue and Freddie would return with new Jordans in his kit bag, along with a new inhaler, as he left the old one at almost every away game.
If Freddie and Isaac stood on each other’s shoulders they still wouldn’t reach our tallest player Brandon, who by the end of the season was bigger than most of the parents, except his mother. Brandon moved Bambi-like around the court; all arms and legs, which isn’t actually a bad thing for a basketball player. His wingspan is intimidating, even with his narrow arms and bony shoulders. He encouraged his legs to carry him around the court and would celebrate scoring by running back on defence with a beaming smile. When he raised his long arms above his head, he made any player second-guess an attempt to shoot the ball.
We soon developed a home court atmosphere with parents pitching in to run a tuck shop on game days and cheering families lining the court. Ben would fire up a three pointer into the air when he should have taken a layup and after screaming, “No! Don’t shoot that one!” I’d sheepishly sit down as the ball rattled off the backboard, into the basket. Katrell, our fiery American point-guard would refuse to spit his gum out when the referees asked him to, something that his Dad reassured me, “isn’t in the rule book.” This home crowd saw us win a mere two games in our gym all year. However, the away games held an even better atmosphere. There was something exhilarating about taking ten or twelve country lads, towing large kit bags, off to the city for the day. With each game I watched the boys change. This soon reflected in their playing ability and style as well. Sharp haircuts before game day and personalized basketball shoes started appearing regularly.
These sons of farmers have become part of the expanding foundation of English basketball. Their culture began to blend and they admired the changes, complimenting each other on their performances that game or comparing favourite teams and players. This transformation had taken place naturally, without forcing rules and punishing any unwanted expression with pushups or suicide runs. We finished the season with a lonely four wins, but we earned every single one of these victories.
Some would say we had a hard season. The only hard part was when we momentarily lost our perspective of learning a sport and focused too much on the points and winning. We didn’t have a common goal of winning the league; our goal was to improve basketball skills and consequently develop the players’ personalities, friendships and confidence. Brandon started to joke with the team. Ethan would ask to go onto the court instead of shying away from the challenge. Emails from parents confirmed that they too were seeing changes in the players; they were adopting a more serious and determined attitude and striving for excellence. Christmas brought new basketballs bouncing in the garden and hoops being put up furthest away from mums’ plants.
By the end of the season there were more NBA player signature shoes in the old gym than could be found in any shoe shop in Suffolk. Seven of the players went on to play for their county and two for their region, exhibiting more talent to develop in the future. As a coach, I wanted the boys to learn to play and learn to love basketball. They far surpassed any expectations.