The increasing drift of the best English talent to richer continental clubs led the league to extend last season's experiment of permitting each team to sign up to five non-European foreigners, almost all Americans. With the sport on a roll domestically, why change the formula?
"It's the reality of where we are," the League's chief executive, Mike Smith, said. The reality for the League centres on attendances increased by 30 per cent to an average of 3,060 per game, occasionally massaged by pounds 1 per seat promotions; increased media coverage and an impressive raft of corporate sponsors. This week Mitsubishi replaced 7-Up as backers of the league trophy.
Club owners include impresarios Harvey Goldsmith and Ed Simons (The Leopards) and Barrie Marshall (London Towers); Chrysalis TV's Chris Wright (Sheffield Sharks), Sir John Hall (Newcastle Eagles) and the American millionaires Bill Cook (Manchester Giants) and Greg Fullerton (Worthing Bears).
Last summer an indiscreet league memo revealed the clubs had lost pounds 1.5m the previous season and no businessman is making money out of basketball. Smith, an accountant, said: "The owners are still investing."
In contrast to this high profile brigade, the governing body, the English Basketball Association, appears impoverished and anonymous. Lacking funds for the national teams, England's Hungarian coach, Laszlo Nemeth, is threatening not to lead the men into this season's European Championship.
"I've had three years of crisis management in the role and never found who is accountable," he said. "Someone has to be responsible for the mess, but he is lost in the mist somewhere. I am keen to lead a well-funded team through another three-year contract, but when I stand in front of the players I don't want to feel guilty for betraying them for the sake of my own job security."
The Association is chasing funding from the Sports Council and National Lottery but might not have a result before England begin their group games at the end of November.
Most of the leading England internationals, who took advantage of the freedom of transfer ruling to join continental clubs restricted to two Americans, have stayed on the other side of the Channel: Steve Bucknell and Martin Henlan (Greece), John Amaechi (Italy), Trevor Gordon (Portugal), Ian White and Andy Gardiner (Belgium). While Delme Herriman has left Trieste to join Manchester Giants and Andrew Bailey has quit Germany for Newcastle Eagles, a fresh crop has gone abroad this summer chasing bigger pay-days in leagues which are not salary-capped like in England.
The most notable loss is Roger Huggins, who has joined Royal Antwerp in Belgium from Sheffield Sharks. Sean McKie and Wayne Mulgrave (Germany), Kevin St Kitts (the Netherlands) and Matt Meakin and Abe Ahmed (Portugal) have also departed.
Ronnie Baker, another England international and the spark plug in the back court of the Leopards' championship-winning team last season, is also holding out for a continental club.
Leopards' American coach, Billy Mims, said: "Ronnie wants to earn continental wages, preferably on an English court, but it isn't going to happen. We've made him an offer and would love him to come back but his agent has him talking to clubs all over Europe. All I know is he's still sitting in Brixton waiting for a phone call."
The only League club exploiting Bosman are London Towers, who can use only two Americans in the European Cup, but have boosted their foreign ranks by retaining Paul Deppisch, a German, and adding Marco Baldi, a 6ft 11in, 30-year-old Italian. There may be 55 Americans lining up this weekend but Baldi has more international club experience than any player to appear in 25 years of the English League after playing for Milan in two Korac Cup finals and a European Cup Final Four tournament.
Baldi went to high school and college in America and makes his league debut at Crystal Palace tonight. "I never imagined ever playing in England but Bosman has opened everything up. Towers have a reputation on the continent now and I'm very happy to be here."
Milan, ironically, are in London's European Group and visit Wembley Arena on 23 September. "I can't wait," Baldi said. "There will be big battles."
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