A game gone to blazers and Pot Noodles
Sunday 08 March 1998
The title of worst-run sport inBritain has been hotly contested for a century, pretty well since the codification of rules by the Victorians encouraged the emergence of the ubiquitous sporting species known as Homo Committeens, but it is mildly disturbing to find the accolade bestowed by one of its own players on a sport which has been tipped for explosion in this country for the past decade or more and for global domination into the next millennium.
In the USA, the commercial success of the NBA has been a tribute not just to the universal pulling power of basketball, but to the financial vision and drive of the game's administrators. Not that long ago, basketball was bumping along without purpose or leadership. Now, every seat in almost every arena is sold and Michael Jordan tops the league of US sporting earners. Its influence can be felt at the heart of the West Indian cricket team. In a bid to promote the game - and the sale of Chicago Bulls vests - in Britain, the NBA have moved their European office from Geneva to London, only to run up against the knotty problems which have affected every imported American sport from ice hockey to American football.
In basketball terms, Britain is proving a tough nut to crack. In small halls and sports centres up and down the land, the game's popularity is unquestioned. One of the five public tennis courts in my local park in Surrey has suddenly sprouted bright red and blue basketball hoops, the product of the Outdoor Basketball Initiative funded by the National Lottery to the tune of pounds 6m. For PE teachers, basketball is heaven sent, a game of enormous simplicity, instant action and great street cred. A boatload of energy can be crammed into the narrow confines of a basketball court and the only requirements for spectators are a short attention span and the ability to count to 100.
In America, that appeal has been magicked into television rights of $2.64billion for the next three years. So it was perhaps understandable that John Amaechi, recently of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Steve Bucknall, once of the Lakers, two members of the England team, should wonder out loud if the provision of Pot Noodles, Penguins, Trios - compensation for inedible local grub - and an expenses budget of pounds 15 a day should be adequate reward for national service to the English Basketball Association on a recent trip to Belarus for a European Championship qualifying game. "It is not a matter of money," Amaechi said. "We do wonder whether the commitment we give to the EBBA is equalled by their commitment to us."
To add to the farce, Roger Huggins, a veteran international, was detained at the Lithuanian border on his way back to Belgium for his son's first birthday because he did not have a visa the EBBA allegedly said he did not need. Huggins was returned to the team's camp in Belarus, missed the birthday and, as a protest, sat out the team's next game against Israel in Manchester. The team could not even afford to take a qualified doctor on its travels. A case of more bust than boom.
Lazlo Nemeth, the head coach, voiced his dismay at the incompetence of the organisation. "I am mad after four years of constant lies," he said. On Thursday, he was suspended by the EBBA executive board pending a final decision on his future on 14 March. If the popular Hungarian goes, most of the senior members of the team, including Amaechi, Huggins and Bucknall, have indicated they will retire from international basketball in sympathy. It's a shambles, a sad reflection, say the players, of years of administrative neglect and old-boy inertia. The sadness for the long-term future of the game is that the EBBA were expecting to hear that their 10-year performance plan to lift the national teams into the top five in Europe, requiring pounds 1m a year, had been rejected. The bad publicity did not help.
This is not the place for another analysis of basketball's vicious circle. The pro league bobs along merrily without showing signs of the progress at last being enjoyed by ice hockey, that other "boom around the corner" product. Crowds are small and the foreigner v homegrown boy debate is no nearer solution. Frustrated by a career cul-de-sac, many talented young players turn to other sports which can offer more support. A future in the NBA, even such lucrative havens as Greece and Italy, is no more than a pipedream. No one can seriously make a decent living playing basketball in Britain and no self-respecting kid will waste the entrance fee to a national league game when he can see the real thing on his widescreen television every week.
Basketball is not the only minority sport being squeezed breathless in the increasingly competitive scrap for Lottery funding. In the click of a lottery ball, the atmosphere has changed. No longer can the blazers humph and grumph in smoke-filled committee rooms safely nursing their Sports Council grants alongside the gin and tonics.
The climate of glorious amateurism has changed, though you might not believe it the way rugby is besporting itself. Lottery funding comes at a price and somewhere between now and the end of Sydney 2000 must be translated into the language the average Lottery funder can understand. Under the elite performance programmes at present being dotted and crossed in offices up and down the country, only medals will count. Olympic first and foremost, world championships next, Commonwealth Games next. Those sports who cannot hope to produce medals are being sidelined as dear old England heads towards a brutal elitism which would have been easily understood in the corridors of the East German sporting system circa 1980.
I have heard the same message from two head coaches now, one in rowing, one from cycling. Hang the notion of "Sport for all", so assiduously peddled by the Sports Council through the Eighties; sports have two years to produce medallists or the cash dispenser will be closed. Elitism is in and sports like basketball, which exists on a grant of pounds 300,000 a year from the Sports Council and an assortment of sponsorships and memberships fees to finance a budget of pounds 1m, will have to put out the begging bowl. The Government wants medals now, not a series of IOU notes, cashable in 10 years' time. And if that means changing training programmes to suit the potential medallists, the rest will have to lump it. The days of the blazer brigade are numbered; the old lady with pounds 1 coin and a Lottery card full of her grandchildren's birthdates is now running sport and she demands a handsome return on her investment. Sport's losers will have to exist on a diet of Penguin bars and Pot Noodles.
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