Basketball: Sharks still sharp in brave new world

When John Amaechi left Sheffield, so did basketball's media circus. But they are no one-man band.
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The Independent Online
SO THERE is life after John Amaechi. And for the Sheffield Sharks, their fans, administrators and coach Chris Finch, life so far looks good.

While Amaechi, the former Stockport Grammar School boy, waits in Phoenix, Arizona for the NBA lock-out to end and open up his next career move, his former team-mates have put their stamp on the new Budweiser League season. Sunday night's 87-78 win at Birmingham Bullets took Sheffield's unbeaten start to six games.

A solid core of returning players in Todd Cauthorn, Terrell Myers, Wil Johnson, Michael Payne and Iain McKinney, two influential newcomers in Matt Gaudio and Travis Conlan, plus two genuine English prospects in Richard Windle and Adrian Anderson, give Sharks a togetherness lacking from the second half of last season.

Sheffield look comfortable with themselves again, a blue collar "hard hat" club and no longer a side-show to the Amaechi media bandwagon which put the rest of them in the shade.

Finch acknowledges: "John is a great player but we had a fundamental clash of philosophies. John needed to be in the shop window and he needed the ball every time we went down the floor."

Steve Bucknall, now in Greece, became the first Englishman to play professional in America's NBA, with the Los Angeles Lakers. But when the Cleveland Cavaliers picked up the 6ft 10in Amaechi in 1995 he became the first Englishman to start an NBA game. Later released by the Cavs, he had half-seasons in Greece and Italy before breezing into Sheffield half-way through last season.

Amaechi's impact as a scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker helped lift Sheffield to the League Trophy final, although his reckless shot nearly cost them the game before Myers won it with a three-pointer.

But team play was suffering and Shark's challenge for the league title consequently faded. Finch recalls: "Initially our other big guys Todd and Wil, were excited to have him because we were still a bit green in the middle. But everything had to go through John and their confidence suffered."

Mark Robinson, a Shark last season and now with Bullets, agrees. "I think Sharks are a stronger team without John and me," the 31-year-old Philadelphian said. "Last season we started out as a strong unit but when John arrived everyone had to put his game ahead of their own. He had to have the ball all the time and it was like he was doing British basketball a favour being here."

Finch said: "They are both great talents and I wouldn't say Mark expected to have the ball every play. But it got to the point where we were just playing two-man basketball and it became too easy for teams to stop us just by stopping them.

"Now I feel the balance is back and everyone understands what we're working towards."

The returning confidence shows not only in the senior players but also in Windle and Anderson, who benefit from Finch's refusal to sacrifice them as bench-warmers just to conform to the League's regulation that each team must include two under-25 players.

Windle, at 6ft 8in and 18 stone, "hits people like a truck in practice" says Finch, and with Anderson enjoys significant minutes on court.

Finch says: "The club has invested four to five years in them and now their future is opening up."

Finch has made two outstanding captures in Gaudio and Conlan, a baby-face "assassin" to rival Manchester United's Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer.

Conlan already leads the team in three-pointers, steals and assists as his apparently disproportionately long arms both ensnare opponents and find a way past them with the ball. "He's a tough, hard-nosed kid and alongside Terrell I think he gives us the best back-court in the league," said Finch.

Gaudio, an American with an Italian passport, played at Penn State University with Amaechi. "I knew the expectation was that I had to fill John's shoes. But this is a team where no one cares who scores 20 points on the night just as long as we win."

After playing in 1996-97 in Italy with Stefanel Milan, the 6ft 8in, 240lb forward missed all last season after knee surgery. He is completing his rehabilitation with Sheffield and Finch accepts that Gaudio is another "shop window" player. "Having an Italian passport makes him very marketable on the continent."

Gaudio's ambition is to play for the Italian national team, but adds: "I wouldn't assume I'll leave here. I'm enjoying the country and the people. It's been easy to settle and it means a lot just to walk to the grocery store and be able to communicate in the same language."

Finch pays Gaudio the compliment of comparing him not with Amaechi, but with Sheffield's all-time favourite son Roger Huggins, now playing in Belgium.

"Matt gives us the best low-post options in making moves, drawing fouls and taking shots since the days of Roger," Finch says. "Plenty of people who saw Matt and John play together at Penn State thought Matt eclipsed him. I'm sure Matt will eclipse the memory of John at this club."