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Bucknall back among the high fives

Owen Slot meets the former LA Laker who returned to be a big noise in British basketball
SIX years ago in Los Angeles, Steve Bucknall signed for the Lakers and made sporting history. Never had a British player graced the NBA, yet Bucknall played side by side with Magic Johnson, a gangly 23-year- old from Streatham exchanging passes with one of the all-time giants of the sport. It was, however, a fleeting date with the American professional league. The following year Bucknall started with Magic, but finished with the unpaid unknowns of the Sunderland Saints. "Hell, I had a terrible time," he recalled. "Back here, I didn't train, didn't care for my body, didn't care if we lost. I didn't know what to do, didn't even know if I wanted to play 'ball any more."

Having been the greatest success story in the British game, Bucknall returned home and failed. The basketball community was quick to criticise, quick to point out that he was lazy and, finally, that he was not actually any good. Bucknall saw out the season but then fled the country: a year in Germany, two in France, from celebrity to obscurity where, eventually, he prepared to return to the English league a second time.

Today, he will be playing for the Thames Valley Tigers against the Sheffield Sharks in the National Cup final in Sheffield and he is expected to dominate the game, just as he has dominated the league all season. No one doubts the success of his second coming: on 13 January, before the 7-Up Trophy final in Birmingham, he was made Player of the Year, an award he justified afterwards when he led the Tigers to victory in the game, also against the Sharks. "If the situation gets tight, as it did then," Peter Scantlebury, his team-mate, said, "you give the ball to Steve and you can rely on him to do something special."

Bucknall's comeback first became a possibility last summer when he flew over from France for the wedding of Scantlebury, a friend from his junior playing days, and Mike Bett, the Tigers' coach, set about persuading him to return. By August, Bucknall was on board with the Tigers on their pre- season tour of Holland and there he called a special meeting. "I just wanted to let everybody know how I was, that I would try to give them the benefit of my knowledge, that I may sometimes sound critical, but that they shouldn't feel intimidated."

He thus established an understanding with his team-mates (he is so vocal in practice that they refer to him as "Coach Bucknall") that never existed in Sunderland. He lost respect for the Saints when their sponsor pulled out and ceased to pay the players, yet he concedes that the battle may have been lost the moment he arrived. "From the NBA to there - it was ridiculous. I think I felt I was too good to play here. I thought it was an insult, degrading. But really I was having trouble personally because I'd got cut from the Lakers." And who can blame him? "Being in the NBA," he said, "was like being in a dream."

Bucknall joined the Lakers in 1989 from the University of North Carolina and Magic Johnson made an immediate impression on him. "When I went to pre-season camp I thought I was in shape, but he just ran rings round me. I'd arrive early for practice and he'd be there before me, and in practice he was like a wild animal." Johnson, he said, "was a nice guy but liked himself a lot"; it was James Worthy, another of the Lakers' greats, who became Bucknall's mentor in LA until, after 18 games, his NBA career ended.

Britain's best, though, was no failure - a spate of injuries forced the Lakers to recruit another centre and Bucknall, a small forward, was forced to make way. Certainly, he has not been forgotten in the States. "I still call him up," Dean Smith, North Carolina's highly respected coach, said. "He was one of my favourites. Such quick feet, certainly one of the best defensive players I've ever had here - and this is my 34th year."

Jim Brandon, coach of the Sheffield Sharks, describes Bucknall's achievements as an "outstanding contribution to British basketball". His own success story with the Sharks does not suffer in comparison.

The Sharks are a new franchise this season, and in early August Brandon was taken on with only five weeks in which to recruit and prepare a team. By this time, the Tigers were already on their pre-season tour and the leading British players had already been signed. So Brandon settled on a line-up which is, in his own words, "a bunch of green-behind-the-ears, wet-nosed, rag-tag unheard-ofs". He calls them "The Unknown and the Obscure". Initially, The Unknowns' ambition was limited to "respectability", yet the team have been top of the Budweiser League since October and are now almost guaranteed a place in the play-offs, televised on Sky Sports, in April.

The recruiting of the team who have achieved such success was a bizarre process, particularly in the case of Roger Huggins, the team's outstanding player, who proved impossible to track down. "His parents didn't know where he was, nor did his Belgian team or the England national team," Brandon said. "For four weeks we couldn't find this guy. Finally we heard he might be in a neighbourhood in New Jersey." Requests for help in the hunt for Huggins were immediately dispatched to houses in the area in the form of telegrams - one of which finished up on the very man's doormat.

The Unknowns immediately became higher profile. Today, at the Sheffield Arena, they stand on the verge of fame. They are all fully aware, though, that Steve Bucknall has the ticket to take them back to anonymity.