26th March 2018
That Kieron Achara is a big man – 6 feet 9 inches and 240 pounds – is probably a help to him in his current occupation. He is a professional basketball player with the Glasgow Rocks, who compete in the top tier in the sport in the UK: the British Basketball League (BBL). Next month, he will captain Scotland in the men’s basketball competition in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
In Scotland, the principal BBL franchise has moved around somewhat since the establishment of the Edinburgh Rocks in 1998 with their base at Meadowbank. They were transformed into the Scottish Rocks on moving to Braehead in 2002 and then into the Glasgow Rocks on taking up residence at the city’s Kelvin Hall in 2009. Since 2012, the Rocks’ home has been the Emirates Arena in Glasgow’s east end, which is where I saw them take on the Leicester Riders on Friday evening.
This was only my second-ever basketball match. Over 30 years ago – as reported in An Ordinary Spectator – I took advantage of a free evening on a business trip to the US East Coast to watch the New York Knickerbockers play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the MadisonSquareGarden. One might as well start at the very top, I thought. I noted that there was “something balletic in the speed and grace of these big men and the skills that they possess… There would be the careful working of a position and then a sudden flurry of fast action as the scoring play was attempted and defended”. I also recorded that one of the Knicks – Patrick Ewing – was a mere 7 feet tall and that the match programme included an endorsement for a natural control hairspray by a New York rabbi!
Compared with other sports, basketball appears to be well down the pecking order in this country. Media coverage is limited – though I recently caught the two-hour coverage of a BBL match on the Free Sports satellite channel – as is, crucially, the central funding from UK Sport. I return to the latter point below.
To its credit, the BBL does attempt to ensure that, for domestic basketball players, there is a pathway to the top level so that the elite sides are not dominated by imports from overseas. There is a limit of three players from outside the European Union in a team’s roster for the season with a maximum of five non-British players being allowed in any particular game.
The Leicester Riders fixture was a good one to choose. The visitors are on course to win the BBL Championship for the third consecutive year, having established a clear lead in the league table above the franchises in Newcastle and Glasgow. The Rocks’ current third place – the position they finished in last season – is under some threat, the side having played more games than their nearest rivals, but they are easily on course to be one of the top eight (out of 12) sides that will contest the separate knock-out Play-Off tournament in May.
The tempo of the game was swift and upbeat and established by the relentless countdowns on the arena’s electronic clock: the 10-minute quarters (with the last single minutes counted down to the tenth of a second); the one-minute time-outs (when the Glasgow Rockettes enthusiastically went through their routines in the centre of the arena); the 25-second limitation on a side’s possession before it would attempt a shot at the basket.
The urgent rhythm was compounded by continual bursts of upbeat music – Status Quo’s Rocking All Over the World and Van Halen’s Jump being predictably prominent – and the speed with which, for both sides, defence would be transformed into attack when the opponents’ assault was halted and possession regained. The Rocks’ Nate Britt, for one, was impressively quick over the court, whilst the Riders’ Pierre Hampton stood out with his skill and physicality.
That every second counts was emphatically confirmed in this match. Two penalty shots enabled the Riders to take the score to 80-77 with the clock ticking down to the end of the last minute. A final Rocks attack then saw Gareth Murray land a three-point basket from some distance. The ball passed through the net to a huge roar from the crowd – by now all on its feet – and, by the time I looked up at the clock again, it had counted down to 0.00. This was proper sports drama, of the type that has reeled me in over these many years.
The five minutes of overtime passed very quickly, even allowing for the tactical time-outs. At the close of play, it was the Riders who had edged home by 90-88: their ability to inch over the line perhaps indicative of being the league’s leading team.
The visitors’ success was all the more impressive, not only because they had only a handful of supporters in the crowd, but because the whole atmosphere was geared in support of the Rocks. This extended to the systematic stamping of the crowd’s feet – prompted by the mc – as the Riders attempted a penalty throw at the basket and the subsequent playing of ironic duck quacks if the attempt were missed. It was not exactly Corinthian Casuals, though – I emphasise – it was not hostile, just orchestrated to be heavily biased, and I assume that this is the norm throughout the league. I also noted that the players shook hands with all their opponents (and with the referees) before the match – and did so warmly, not in the cursory manner usually seen before a soccer game.
It is clear that the Glasgow Rocks organisation is heavily involved in schools and community work. The match programme stated that the players had delivered roadshows in 87 schools in the current season. For the Riders match, the crowd in the arena was of all ages, including organised groups from three primary schools as well as teenagers, couples, families and office groups.
At half-time, a long queue of (mainly) youngsters formed on the court to take shots at the basket. Given the weight of the ball, it was not surprising that some struggled to reach half the height of the net – including a fully-attired Superman aged about seven – but others raised loud cheers from the crowd for their accurate throws. One young girl – probably aged about 11 or 12 with her ginger hair in a ponytail – addressed her shots with poise and calmness and nailed three out of four from the penalty line, each of her successes barely touching the rim of the basket.
Let us return to UK Sport, whose criteria for a sport’s financial support are clearly set out on its website: “The primary role of UK Sport is to strategically invest National Lottery and Exchequer income to maximise the performance of UK athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the global events which precede them”. Hence, for example, the website reveals that sailing will receive over £25 million and equestrianism over £14 million in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. By contrast, basketball will receive £630,000: the British men’s and women’s teams came 9th and 11th, respectively, in London in 2012 and neither qualified for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Of course, there have to be some criteria for the allocation of funding – and UK Sport is fully transparent on the course that it has decided – but this particular methodology is not without its critics. It places all its eggs in the basket of winning medals, rather than taking into account any broader impacts – economic, social, health – that a sport might have at the grassroots level. Thus, in the case of basketball, it does not take account of the low cost to the individual of taking part or its accessibility to potential participants in the major urban (and other) centres, where (again for example) options such as sailing and equestrianism might be less readily available.
It is a characteristic of modern democracies that there should be a continual debate about the allocation of public resources, the availability of which will always be limited. At the macro level, this involves big decisions: health or education or defence… etc? But the same principle applies throughout the hierarchy of public expenditure.
Hence, we should regularly ask: is the allocation of the (limited) public funds available for the support of sports participation and achievement the most appropriate that we can devise? I looked at the half-time queue on the court at the Emirates Arena on Friday evening – including the 7-year old Superman and the 12-year old girl with the ginger ponytail – and I did wonder if the current priorities were correct.
In the meantime, things move on. Good luck to Kieron Achara and Gareth Murray and their five Rocks colleagues representing Scotland in the Commonwealth Games. And to their other colleague, Kofi Josephs, and two of the Leicester Riders – Shane Walker and Andrew Thomson – who will be in the England squad for the first of their Pool B preliminary matches in Townsville on 5th April. That match is England versus Scotland.