Basketball: Americans provide a 'cheap fix'

English basketball players are being pushed aside. Richard Taylor reports
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The Independent Online
Now that the lights have gone up on the new Budweiser League season, the only place on the planet where the fans can watch more Americans play basketball is in the United States itself.

Equally certain is that the lights are going down on basketball as an international sport in England. After the Bosman ruling, the clubs have lost an average of just over one player per team to the Continent, including leading internationals such as Steve Bucknall (to Greece), Trevor Gordon (Italy) and Andy Gardiner (Belgium).

But the league have allowed clubs to recruit three extra Americans, up to a maximum of five per team. This has reduced the playing opportunities for English players, the lifeblood of national team development.

The league's priorities lie in satisfying sponsors and television, and reducing the liabilities of their clubs, who lost pounds 1.5m last year. With Budweiser adding a pounds 1.5m two-year extension to their sponsorship and Sky TV showing a weekly live game after Sunday's Premiership football, the league faced the prospect of empty seats and a talent gap that had to be filled.

The league's chief executive, Mike Smith, said: "Emotionally we might feel it is the wrong decision. But, to be practical, we had to ensure there was a workforce to operate the league."

Caught in the crossfire are England's Hungarian coach, Laszlo Nemeth, and Kevin Cadle, the American coach of the league champions London Towers, who open their European Cup campaign in Italy tomorrow against Verona. Cadle, who lost Bucknall, Gardiner and Martin Henlan to Continental clubs, can use just two Americans in the cup to comply with international regulations, and he fears London could be the last English team to play in Europe.

"If a team wins the league with five Americans this season, are they going to dump three of them to play in Europe next season if the regulations stay the same? I don't think so. I hope it doesn't happen but I know we could be the last English club to play in one of the major European competitions."

Nemeth has to assemble players for three European Championship games in the autumn and is now dependent on the co-operation of Continental coaches. "There were solutions to keep our best players here, but no one wanted to explore them," he said. "My players are all over Europe - I'll be lucky to get them the night before a game."

Allowing teams to fill their ranks with low-grade Americans, in some cases, was a quick and cost-effective fix. "It's cheaper for the clubs," said Jeff Jones, the Derby Storm coach who has signed five Americans this season. Jones, 42, is an American who naturalised to play for England and now helps coach national junior players.

"Players like Bucknall could command pounds 20,000 last season and owners know their coaches can get two Americans for that money," Jones said. "Bucknall is earning pounds 150,000 with the Greek club Iraklis, while the total salary cap for each Budweiser League club is pounds 135,000.

"It's a business and the owners and the League had to protect the product. On the surface, it's the quickest and easiest solution to combat the players' exodus. But it is a policy of isolation from the rest of Europe."