Basketball: Rivals in a capital feud

Ian Whittell discusses why the Leopards have put Towers on the spot

A leopard can change its spots, at least in the context of a new British basketball season that got under way last night, and at the heart of that change lies one of the most bitter rivalries in domestic sport. To say there is little love lost between the Leopards and their London rivals the Towers is like suggesting Michael Jordan has a reasonable talent for the game.

The two teams shared the four domestic trophies on offer in British basketball last season and also shared a dislike for each other that runs through every level of the respective clubs but, most glaringly, manifests itself on court when they meet. There has also been an intriguing sub-plot over the very use of the name "London", a right which the longer-established Towers have previously enjoyed exclusively.

When the Leopards entered the Budweiser League three years ago, under the ownership of the music entrepreneurs Ed Simons and Harvey Goldsmith, the Towers, owned by a rival music promoter, Barrie Marshall, were assured of the rights to the name London for promotional and marketing purposes.

That led to a somewhat farcical position of the newcomers being known simply as "The Leopards", the only one of the league's 13 teams not to bear a place name. After much delicate negotiating, that situation was resolved this summer when the Leopards changed those aforementioned spots and became the Greater London Leopards.

Enter Billy Mims, the Leopards' likeable, talented, volatile and very vocal coach, known in some quarters - and not for nothing - as "The Mouth of the South" . "I don't know what all the controversy is about," Mims said . "Our telephone number is 0171, our post code is E14, we live in London, work there, pay our taxes.

"We are the only team with a proper London phone number and address yet we can't call ourselves London. What's the problem? Is London not big enough for two teams? I'm not afraid of them calling themselves London, so why are they scared of us? The irony is that now we're Greater London, maybe that means we're that bit greater than the rest."

The Towers' reaction, through their owner Marshall, was considerably more understated. "The Towers would rather do their talking on court than off it," said Marshall wearily. "Our main aim is to put all our energy into playing and building the game of basketball, rather than rhetoric."

The Leopards-Towers rivalry will be an integral part of the new season as Mims' charges attempt to repeat, or even improve on, last season's double-winning campaign that saw them capture the League title and National Cup.

The Leopards, who host Crystal Palace tonight, have retained the nucleus of that roster, most importantly the brilliant backcourt pair Eric Burks and John White, and have the added height of Makeba Perry and Jason Crump in their ranks.

Meanwhile the Towers, who meet Chester tonight, will have the added distraction of a European Cup campaign that will consist of at least 10 games. They have added Worthing's James Hamilton and the experienced Italian centre Marco Baldi to last season's squad.

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