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.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?