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Basketball: New structure benefits fans

AS IF the drama and tension of the occasion was not enough, Terrell Myers' last second shot which won the Budweiser League championship for Sheffield Sharks two weeks ago against Manchester Giants now has added significance.

The Sharks will be the last team to win England's premier basketball competition ending a line of champions which began in 1973 with Avenue and whose roll call includes Embassy All Stars, Crystal Palace, Doncaster, Solent, Portsmouth and Kingston.

"It's a nice touch to think we'll be the last champions," said the Sharks general manager, Yuri Matischen, "but it's purely incidental in this restructuring of the game."

Next season the Budweiser League will be contested in north and south conferences, with the play-offs deciding the championship instead of a fabricated end of season jamboree.

Jay Goldberg, Manchester's general manager, who was in the front office of the Houston Rockets when they won the NBA title in 1994, put forward his plans for the competition last year. He has since worked with Matischen and the league's Rob Webb and Tim Rudge in devising the new structure.

Goldberg said: "It's a bold and exciting development. People are often asked why we bothered going through play-offs when we've spent the previous eight months beating the hell out of each other. Now the play-off winner will be the undisputed champion."

Matischen agreed: "The play-offs were just an add-on and made no sense. We don't have to stick with a league structure, we're not soccer and don't want to be."

Six teams in the south conference and seven in the north will play twice home and away against conference members, and once home and away against teams from the other conference.

A proposed play-off structure, yet to be agreed, will reward each conference champion by giving them a bye to the finals. The third and fourth team in each conference would play off for the right to meet the two second- placed teams, with the winners joining the conference champions in the finals.

Fans will benefit from an increased number of local games. The League chairman, Kevin Routledge, said: "Fans want to follow their team to away games but are prevented by long travelling distances and evening tip-offs. This move will put more games within their reach."

In a further move, next season the quarter-finals of the uni-ball League Trophy and national cup will move to single venue events played over one day or a weekend, maximising large capacity arenas and guaranteeing television coverage.

Next weekend sees the last play-offs under the present format at the Wembley Arena, between Sheffield, Manchester, Thames Valley Tigers and London Towers.

Next season's southern conference will include Brighton, Greater London, London, Thames Valley, Milton Keynes and Birmingham. The northern conference will be made up of Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Manchester, Chester, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

n Martin Ford has been promoted to head coach at Derby Storm after being assistant to Bob Donewald, whose contract was not renewed for the new season which begins in September.