Domestic strife

Alister Morgan discovers that British basketball is suffering from an import boom
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The Independent Online
England face a crucial European Championship match against Latvia in Leicester on Wednesday. Lying fifth in the six-team Group B after winning only one of five, England will be hoping that home advantage will kick- start attempts to qualify for next year's finals in Spain. While the national team struggle to secure qualification, the domestic game is in rude health.

Standards of play within the Budweiser League have never been better, yet accusations remain that game's future is in jeopardy. A league ruling on foreign players has been extended to allow five team members (out of a total squad of 10) to be non-British passport holders. The ramifications of the Bosman ruling with regard to football are well-known but its influence on basketball, where one player makes significantly more difference to a team's fortunes, have wider implications.

With British teams unable to duplicate the wage bills of their European neighbours, a steady stream of United States players are arriving. Such imports are simply better than the majority of their English counterparts. In the US, competition within the NBA is so fierce that players who never make the grade would compare favourably with Europe's finest. These athletes are now invading the English game and can improve a team within a matter of days.

League administrators face the unenviable task of improving the quality of domestic basketball, via overseas players, while safeguarding the development of young British players.

"I think there are two arguments." says Mike Smith, chief executive of the Basketball League. "The first states that imports stop young players from having opportunities at senior level. The other argues that the higher the quality of the sport, the more youngsters will be attracted to game. We support the second school of thought.

"In many respects we've tried to anticipate what International Basketball Federation (Fiba) rules may be in the future. In football you can employ players from anywhere in the world. Soon something similar may occur in basketball, and that will mean more Americans."

All teams competing in Europe have to adhere to Fiba rules (eight European nationals and two non-Europeans per team). But at the present rate of American imports, this year's Budweiser champions may have to compete in future European competitions with a weakened side. This domestic discrepancy with European rules is at the heart of the debate. While American players undeniably raise playing levels, the overall standard of the British game will only be improved by prolonged exposure to European competition. If Fiba rules are not altered, top British sides could fall into a fruitless cycle of domestic success and European failure.

After 17 years of involvement with British basketball, Alton Byrd, the Crystal Palace head coach, is well placed to assess the domestic game. "We don't have the sort of money than you'd find on the Continent but the game has come a long way and is a very competitive league.

"I don't see the league, the Department of Employment or the English Basketball Association maintaining five foreigners in the long term. Not everyone in the game agrees with the ruling and I think young players may have their development hindered. I would have gone with only three Americans," he said.

"We only have one non-English passport holder in our squad. Our view at Palace is that if you want to play in European competition you have to have English players who are capable of competing. They are not going to get the necessary experience by watching Americans playing in their domestic league."

An admirable and far-sighted policy, though principles alone rarely produce success. Against a backdrop of disappointing results, Palace are near the foot of the table. A recent Palace press conference announced a new sponsorship deal worth pounds 150,000 with Converse. In light of these new funds, Byrd was forced to answer questions referring to an imminent signing . . . of a well-known American, naturally.

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