“The Olympic legacy stuff is so much b******s,” said John Amaechi. One of Britain’s most famous basketball players is talking about what was the Olympic handball arena, now known as The Copper Box.
Amaechi runs the biggest basketball centre in Britain and wanted to replicate and expand it at The Copper Box. Its location in inner-city London seemed perfect for a team sport that ranks behind only football and cricket in terms of mass participation but has little place in the national consciousness, even though the season’s showpiece, the British Basketball League play-offs, sell out Wembley Arena.
“The legacy has always been b******s,” said Amaechi, who was on the diversity board of the London Organising Committee and was an ambassador for the Games. “Legacy costs money, legacy takes forward planning. My centre in Manchester has 2,500 coming through its doors every week; that centre would have had 10,000 playing basketball.
“It has four full-sized courts; I have three. It has full-time access; I have 5pm to midnight. It would have been jammed but it would never have been as profitable as hiring it out for five-a-side football.”
Basketball was one of those sports that did not linger in the Olympic limelight. The presence of the Chicago Bulls’ forward Luol Deng, who fled civil war in the Sudan as a child and grew up in Croydon, gave Team GB a certain glamour but it was rather like asking Lionel Messi to play for Scotland. It would guarantee crowds but not results.
In the wake of the Games, the sport’s governing body, British Basketball, was told it would lose all its funding. Following a campaign by Deng, who as Barack Obama’s favourite sportsman brings kudos, the funding was restored but only for a year, and it would depend on how Great Britain performed at the European Championship in Slovenia, a competition Deng will not be going to. Their chances are beyond slim.
This is a sport that needs radical, long-term restructuring rather than parachuting in a few players from the American NBA every four years – Byron Mullens of the Charlotte Bobcats had never set foot in Britain before accepting his invitation from Team GB.
As the most high-profile British sportsman to have come out as gay, Amaechi has always tackled issues directly. Shortly after our interview, he was due to fly to Doha to speak to a conference on “sports ethics and security” in the full knowledge that his values and those of the government of Qatar were hardly compatible.
“I would be very surprised if we even had had a team in 2016; I’d be shocked, frankly,” said Amaechi. “I know why they did what they did in 2012. They were hosting the Games, they had to have a team so they flung one together using some NBA players, but the point guard was my age (42). Luol will still be eligible to play in Rio but probably won’t.
“If we started now, we could put a side together for 2020. It would be competitive and it could qualify on its own merits. To build five more basketball centres would cost you £18m-£20m and then you would have the basis of a British team that would be young and raw and motivated by the fear of younger players taking their place.”
Amaechi, who learnt his trade in the American collegiate system, will, with Salford University, fund £180,000 worth of basketball scholarships that will prepare athletes not just for a career in the sport but for life afterwards. There are also plans for a televised British League based around eight elite clubs.
“The UK Sports model – the idea that if you are good we will give you more money – is ridiculous,” said Amaechi. “Let’s face it; we are really good at winning boat races against landlocked countries. We are really good at shooting things – although I doubt pistol shooting is a sport you really want to encourage in the inner cities. We are really good at every colonial sport you can imagine; riding horses, for instance, like we once did across the plains of other people’s countries. And we look down on sports millions of people play.
“In basketball we are constantly seeing people who tell us, ‘I cannot stay in basketball because mum needs me to work in the shop’, or who can’t even consider university because of the loans needed. Working-class people view getting into debt for the sake of education very differently to how a middle-class family does. The risk often seems too great. We are trying to reduce that risk.” They are looking, initially, for six candidates to sponsor each year for three seasons. Of the first draft, two must be good enough to play for Amaechi’s club, Manchester Magic, or the women’s team, the Mystics, while studying at Salford.
Amaechi was 17 “eating a pasty” and walking down Market Street in Manchester when a stranger came up and asked if he fancied playing basketball. “Within six years, I was turning out for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It only takes six years to produce an NBA player and, believe me, you could walk down Market Street tomorrow and find better athletes than me.”
Amaechi’s first major stop on the road to the NBA was Pennsylvania State University. “I found myself at the Rec Hall, which was always called ‘The Small Gym’ and it had 18,000 seats.” The elite who graduate from the Salford programme will probably have to go abroad, to the United States or Spain, who are the European champions.
“There are three routes,” said Amaechi. “One is to go to the United States. The other is to be good enough to be picked up by a Spanish team. Barcelona and Real Madrid run very good basketball sides within their sports clubs. Or you could stay here, but to stay here is death. The average wage for a British basketball player in this country is around £7,000 a year. Some are paid more, like Andrew Sullivan, who is the captain of the GB team, but not a degree of magnitude more. I was talking salaries with a French journalist and asked what the average salary was in France and he said about £7,000 and I said: ‘That’s terrible. It’s the same here.’ But he meant £7,000 a month.” By way of comparison, Amaechi once turned down a $17m contract to play for Los Angeles Lakers – and that was 13 years ago.
“I am sad so many of our established basketball players are here. They are earning no money, their useful basketball years are waning away. If we had been able to offer them a place at university, they might have something to fall back on when their £7,000-a-year stint in basketball is done, rather than set up a coaching scheme where you do a little bit of this and a couple of hours of that and call it a career.”
For full details of the North-West basketball scholarships go to: www.amaechibasketballcentre.com