Liam Canny on basketball in England

September, 17, 2010
9/17/10
4:51
PM ET
The other day we happened across some evidence that basketball is, in essence, insanely popular and taking over the entire world.

Some of the evidence even suggested that this sport we love may be becoming popular in England. There's some evidence that lots of young people there are shooting hoops. Coach, teacher and broadcaster Liam Canny lives in England and agreed to address the topic of how popular, or not, basketball is in England now. He writes:

Is basketball taking over the world?

Certainly not on the island of Great Britain. Basketball may be king in the United States; and baloncesto may be a crowned prince in Spain. But, in Britain, the wrong roundball game does not get anywhere near the royal throne. From Land's End to John O'Groats, the most popular sports in terms of media coverage, revenue generated and chin-wagging down at the local pub are soccer, soccer and soccer, in that order. Rugby is a distant fourth, cricket an even more distant fifth and athletics gets a "look in" from time to time.

In Britain, basketball just does not feature prominently in the consciousness of a proud sporting nation. The national, professional basketball league does not have a corporate sponsor, nor does it have a television contract. By contrast, the English Premier Soccer League is the most popular and oft viewed sporting league in the world. It is followed by over half a billion people in more than 200 countries. In terms of notoriety, prominence and significance in the collective minds of sports fans in Scotland, England and Wales, basketball is marooned in a faraway place beyond the Shetland Islands.

Let me share with you an anecdote from my days serving as an assistant to Mick Bett as a coach of the U-18 England national basketball team. In 2005, we were preparing the junior national team for the European Championships (B Division) to be held in Slovakia in July that summer. The first problem we had in grooming the team was that many of the players were either in prep schools in the United States or specialist basketball academies in Spain.

Once we got all the players back in the country at the beginning of June that year, we had a good few weeks to train the squad. One Saturday morning, we had a training session scheduled in Birmingham. We arrived to a beautiful new facility, only to discover that the manager of the sports hall had made an error. It was just before 9 a.m. Although our team manager had booked the multi-purpose court for the whole day, the sports hall manager apologized profusely for having mistakenly given our morning session to some five-a-side footballers.

It was a clerical error, a "double-booking," but the footballers had the court. “I can put you in the old gym for the morning until noon, but you still have to wait for one more hour as there are some badminton players who have the space reserved,” the sports hall manager offered. We didn’t really have a choice, so we accepted.

“The Old Gym” was a classic British understatement. The Palestra is an old gym. It’s beautiful. This gym in Birmingham was a relic. The hard tile floor was covered by half an inch of dust left over from the Blitz. There was a great deal of paint, but it wasn’t in the paint. There were lines everywhere -- of all colours. Netball lines. Five-a-side football lines. Volleyball lines. And, of course, badminton lines. For the next hour, eight people played badminton on four courts in the old gym while fourteen players, three coaches and a team manager impatiently stood by watching proceedings.

One of the players stuck on the sideline that morning was 7-0. Two were 6-10. Many were between 6-5 and 6-9. Ashley Hamilton now plays at Loyola Marymount. Justin Robinson is at Rider College. Matthew Bryan-Amaning plays for the University of Washington. Phil Waite went to St. John’s then transferred to Monmouth. Ben Eaves did his first year at UConn, but now plays for URI. Several of the team now play at Division 2 and 3 colleges in the USA. Two of them are pros. The pros? A member of the World Select Team that played in the 2006 Nike Hoops Summit, Danny Clark now plays professionally in the Spanish ACB league. (Incidentally, the 2006 Nike Hoop Summit game included Kevin Durant, Ty Lawson and Patty Mills). The second future pro standing on the sideline that morning was Joel Freeland. Joel would go on to be drafted in the first round of the 2006 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. He now plays for Unicaja Malaga in the Spanish ACB and the Euroleague. A future first round NBA draft choice stuck watching badminton rather than doing Mikan drills. Are you kidding me?

All the players wore their national team kit with the iconic three lions logo. The players were conspicuous by their annoyance. Arms were crossed. Brows were furrowed. Coaches vexed and I was flummoxed. “I don’t believe we’re losing practice time to a game that you can play in your back yard,” I thought. Not once did someone approach the boys on the sideline to say, “I see you have on some England training kit. Who are you lads? The junior national basketball team? You don’t say. Oh my heavens, let’s get out of your way.”

With a bit of trepidation, the team manager politely asked a septuagenarian who was playing that morning if he and his partner could finish up early so that we could at least have half a court to loosen up.

“Sorry old chap," came the reply. "We have the court booked until noon."

Great Britain still lacks a basketball culture.

How common is it to see young people playing hoops in England? Not very. You seldom see kids playing pick up in a park. Your rarely see pick up in a gym. In 12 years, I have seen it once -- last summer. Kids rarely go down to their school gym to play hoops.

There are a few camps in the summer time. NABC run a camp at Malvern College. Chester Jets hold a camp in Ellesmere Port. Millfield School used to run a camp. I'm not sure if they still do. Luol Deng and his sister sponsor camps.

Participation levels are high. The talent level of young players is improving. The U20 ladies team won the European Championships (B Division) this summer. The junior national leagues are vibrant. Club coaches like Joe Forber at the Manchester Youth Basketball Club, Jimmy Guymon at the Solent Stars and Matt Johnson at the Reading Rockets are doing stellar development work. Basketball academies like Barking Abbey run by Mark Clark are producing some terrific players.

So, there is a great deal to be excited about as the 2012 Olympics are around the corner. Nevertheless, many top players choose to go abroad to polish their development. Luol Deng went to Blair Academy in New Jersey then Duke. Ryan Richards, drafted this past year in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs, chose to go to Spain as a teenager.

Although basketball is progressing in "Blighty," it still has a long way to go before it can take over this corner of the world, a little island bookended by the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.

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