Commonwealth Games: A mad, bad, Fab world
Basketball coach's remarkable journey from dark days in the Bronx to England star
Sunday 12 March 2006
Fabulous Flournoy is sitting in the bar on the ground floor of the complex in which he lives in the heart of Newcastle. He has an NY baseball cap on his head and the coat-hanger frame of the Tyne Bridge outlined behind his left shoulder.
"It's the closest thing to New York, I guess," he says in his soft New York accent, turning to glance at the trademark symbol of Tyneside. "Obviously it's not the likes of the Brooklyn Bridge or the George Washington Bridge, but nevertheless it reminds me of home."
Being settled and successful on Tyneside also reminds Flournoy of how far he has come since his dark days growing up in the Bronx. As a basketball player-coach, the New Yorker has guided the Newcastle Eagles to four trophies in 13 months - four more than the footballing Magpies of Newcastle have won in 37 years, and one more than Rob Andrew has earned in 11 years with the rugby-playing Newcastle Falcons.
The pride he takes in those achievements, and in being picked (as an English resident since 1997) to play for England on basketball's introduction to the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne next week, is not, however, derived principally from the local kudos, welcome though that may be in making the Eagles the real high-flyers on their particular sporting patch.
"It's knowing that my mother is happier for me than anyone could be," Flournoy says, "because, really and truly, I should be dead or in jail. I shouldn't be where I'm at now. From where I lived in the Bronx to being here, overlooking the Tyne Bridge, with the life I have now, has been a long way to go."
It has been a long and painful one too. "I mean, those things are... those things are tough," Flournoy says, halting briefly to keep the emotion in check as he recounts the journey he has made. "I lost my brother. Another brother was shot. One of my best friends was killed."
It was the very least of his worries that his mother burdened him with a name like Fabulous, or Fab, as he has come to prefer (his late brother was called Divine; his sister is Precious). Luce Flournoy - Luce the Juice, as even her doting son calls her - was obliged to work as a drugs courier to make sure that she and her family survived in the Bronx. Even then, with no husband for support, she had to keep herself and her family on the move from one abandoned building to the next, just to keep a roof above their heads.
It's like the script of Fort Apache, the Bronx, only without Paul Newman as the shining knight in cop's clothing. The observation draws an ironic laugh from Flournoy. "Ah," he says, "Fort Apache in the Bronx is only two blocks up the hill from where I lived." So it's a real place, then, Fort Apache? "Yeah," he continues. "The movie was about a real place. It's an old movie, but that was my childhood. That's the time when I was growing up [Flournoy was eight when the film was released in 1981] and that's my neighbourhood.
"I don't like talking about my story - not because I'm ashamed of it, but because I hate pity. I don't want people thinking it's a sob story. But I embrace everything that has happened to me, the good and the bad, because if it don't kill you, it only makes you stronger. It helped polish me, in the sense of being determined, in the sense of not being able to accept failure, or wanting to lose or anything like that - because where I come from if you lost, nine times out of 10 it cost you a heck of a lot more than a basket-ball game. Nine times out of 10, if you lost something, it was your life that you would have to pay for - whether it was over a fight, or some frivolousness, or just dabbling for respect."
Flournoy's elder brother, James Divine Flournoy, was killed by a stray bullet in a nightclub at the age of 22. His younger brother, Calvin Flournoy Jnr, was shot while walking into a store but thankfully survived. One of his closest friends was shot and killed when he confronted a youngster who had thrown an egg at his car.
"As much as those things hurt, you have to try to embrace them and move on and keep going, without being bitter," Flournoy says, quietly but intently, unheard by the lunchtime patrons hanging on the words of Glenn Roeder on Sky Sports News. "And there's times that I am extremely bitter about it. The darker part of me, when I was younger, probably would have wanted to go out and seek revenge, especially when my oldest brother was killed.
"Those things happened. There's not too many things I haven't seen: from deaths, to shoot-outs, gang wars, all that type of stuff. I'm not saying that I had it the worst in the world. There are millions and millions of people out there who had it 10 times worse than me in other countries. I lost a brother. Some people lost a whole family. Some people lost their moms, their dads.
"I have my bad days. I have the days when I wake up and think that it was all a dream, that my brother's still here. And I take comfort in the fact that he would be happy that one of us made it. I was presented with opportunities. And what I take into the schools, and what I take into my basketball, what I take into every day in what I do, is my brother, is my friend, is my neighbourhood, is my lifestyle. I bring that force into everything that I do.
"For me, losing those people, being in those situations and witnessing what I have, has made me realise that life is precious. I'm glad of where I am and what I've accomplished, but I ain't never going back to where I was and how things were. I'd die before I do that. I don't want my family to go back to those low points in our lives - to not have any place to stay, not have any shelter, not have any food or clothes, just things that we take for granted, things that I take for granted today."
So you can be sure that Fab Flournoy - as gentle, affable a basketball giant as you could wish to meet - will be treasuring every moment when he pulls on his England vest in Melbourne for the opening pool match against Barbados next Thursday night. You might never get the Bronx out of the boy from New York, but at 33 he has been a resident basketball player in England for nine years now - with the Birmingham Bullets, the Sheffield Sharks and, since 2002, with the Newcastle Eagles.
"It's an honour to be representing England," he says. "It's a huge milestone for myself and it's a huge milestone for England too, and we want to make sure that we present our best foot forward. Basketball hasn't taken off here in the way it has in other countries, and the Commonwealth Games is a big opportunity for us to help to build up the profile. If we are able to attain a medal, or if we are in medal contention, that will raise a few more eyebrows to the sport and help it grow."
Basketball has grown on Tyne-side, though not quite to the extent that Newcastle's most successful sporting coach gets recognised in a busy lunchtime bar in the city centre. Someone, though, does stop the fabulous Flournoy as we reach the door on the way out. "Excuse me, you've left your mobile phone," the Geordie drinker interjects. "You don't get that very often," the bemused boy from the Bronx quietly remarks.
Hoops and Haka: All Blacks? Meet the Tall Blacks
There is a good chance that England will face a haka when they line up in Bendigo next Saturday. But they won't have Tana Umaga or Daniel Carter staring them down. Instead of the New Zealand All Blacks, it will be the New Zealand Tall Blacks that Fabulous Flournoy and Cowill have to contend with in their second match.
"The Tall Blacks name was first introduced at a team meeting of players in 1990," Grant Chapman, the communications manager of Basketball New Zealand, explained. "Coach at the time was Keith Mair, now chief executive officer of England Basketball."
It was in England in 1905 that the New Zealand rugby team first acquired their nom de guerre. One reporter on the Daily Mail referred to the New Zealand tourists as playing like they were "all backs" after a 63-0 win at Hartlepool, and it became legend that the sub-editor who changed the copy to "all blacks", knowing the colour of the shirts in which they played, was responsible for the trademark name. In fact, as the New Zealand rugby historian Ron Palenski established last year, it was the Express and Echo in Exeter that first called the team "All Blacks" - "by reason," the unnamed journalist put it in his report, "of their sable and unrelieved costume".
Until recently, the New Zealand basketballers, world championship semi-finalists two years ago, were known as The Burger King Tall Blacks. It was decided to drop the corporate name, but the link with the country's flagship sporting team remains strong. "The Tall Blacks do perform the haka, but not before every game," Chapman said. "It's probably safe to say they will perform it at some point during the Games."
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