Basketball: BBL season starts with a scowl

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The Independent Online

Twelve months ago, the British Basketball League chief executive, Mike Smith, welcomed the new season with a sigh of relief and the comment: "It's been a hard summer. It's always a relief when the games start." If anything, the BBL has had to negotiate even choppier waters this summer.

For a start, they lost a club for the third year in a row as Essex Leopards went under, following the earlier demises of Derby Storm and Manchester Giants.

Birmingham Bullets are having accommodation problems with their Aston Events Centre home. They are due to open their campaign at home to Chester Jets tomorrow, but the club owner, Craig Brown, is scouring England's second city for an alternative venue because of a summer-long dispute between himself, the centre's operators and the city council.

"As we stand right now," said Brown earlier this week, "I couldn't tell you where we will be."

BBL even lost a competition, in effect, when they withdrew their teams from the National Cup. The sport's governing body, England Basketball, decided to impose the eligibility rules from their own National League competitions, which would have forced BBL clubs to leave up to half their Americans, as many as three per team, on the bench.

The BBL have put together a replacement competition, the BBL Cup. But Brighton Bears will not have the chance to defend the National Cup they won by defeating Chester Jets 89-79 in January, in one of the few fixtures that attracts live terrestrial TV coverage.

Convincing TV executives that "a competitive National Cup Final between NBL clubs will look good on TV" is now high on the agenda for EB's new chief executive, New Zealander Keith Mair.

Mair, an accountant and former New Zealand federation president, has an international reputation after coaching the senior men's "Tall Blacks" for 12 years in a career that culminated at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He then stepped down, having laid the foundations for New Zealand's unprecedented fourth place finish in last summer's World Championships.

Mair knows EB is in no position to gloat over the travails of the BBL. He arrived only weeks after the impoverished governing body had condemned the senior men's team to the wilderness for at least two years by not entering the European Championship programme leading to the 2005 finals.

Mair said: "England Basketball does not have the finance to fund a team or a programme. They had to act prudently and now we are trying to build from the bottom again. I am amazed at the number of international teams EB puts out [for men and women at different age groups] and I am not sure all of them are valid."

Mair sees the appointment of a high-performance manager as fundamental to restructuring basketball's national teams. "I hear talk about a plan and see some things written down," he said. "But writing down a plan and then executing it are very different matters."

Whether the move over National Cup eligibility can force the BBL and EB towards unifying their registration regulations remains to be seen. But Mair quickly became aware that the American imports who give hours of their time to coach youngsters in schools and community centres are also blocking the route to the top for domestic players.

"The home-grown talent is here," said Mair, "but they look to a future at high school or college in the States. Where do they go after that? I'd like to see the figures on that one."