High hoops of success

Emma Lindsey meets Jimmy Rogers, the inspirational top dog of basketball's Brixton Topcats
Click to follow

Jimmy Rogers is the sort of man who is happier standing up, because he's too busy to sit down. As the founder, head coach and galvanising force behind the Brixton Topcats basketball club, it is his turbocharged zeal and vision which has fuelled the success of what is (unofficially) recognised as an academy of national excellence.

Although the club's record speaks for itself - three times champions of the National League Junior Men's Division and four times the runners-up - Laszlo Nemeth, the coach of the England national team, who sign up many of Rogers' recruits, is keen to add his seal of approval: "The Brixton Topcats are always coming through with elite players. The thing about Jimmy is that he is a magnet. He puts his heart into it. Bringing people into the sport as one-time wonders is no big deal, but to run a big participation project and keep people going through grey, rainy days and hard times takes real talent."

Rogers was born in Wales but grew up in an orphanage in Newcastle upon Tyne. Of his childhood he says only that his father was an American merchant seaman and that his mother was from the Caribbean. It was a teacher with an unusual - for the time - liking for basketball who turned Rogers on to the sport, and it got into his blood.

He joined the army - "Going from one institution to another, but that's another story" - and played guard in the team who won the national championships in 1965. Stationed in Germany the following year, he played for VFL Osnabruck, who won the German national championships. In 1968, he was picked to play in the British Olympic team.

So why this passion for basket-ball? "I don't know," he says, and stops pacing for a moment to think. "It's like a drug," he says finally, "it's putting the ball through the hoop. What can I say? You see it on the faces of the little kids who come in here, it's addictive. I'm still passionate about it after all this time."

In an all-too-familiar story in British sport, the Topcats are a wellspring of talent in a desert offinancial resources. Rogers started the club in 1981 "from dot" in an area of south London that most had given up on. A start-up grant from Lambeth Council soon dried up and since then, money has had to be raised from the 70 members, who each pay an annual £150 fee, as well as paying for their own kit, trainers and at times, even a ball.

In 1985, Michael Jordan, the legendary Chicago Bulls player and a friend of the club, came to Brixton to open an outdoor court sponsored by Nike. Built from recycled trainers, it is in constant use. Striding across the court at the Brixton Recreation Centre, Rogers has the aura of someone on a mission. "When a kid first comes here you can see them thinking, 'what's going on here?' They have no idea about discipline, but they soon come toreally enjoy it.

"I have never thrown a kid out, because they get rejection all the time, and I don't allow anyone to laugh at anyone else because I can remember what it was like at the start, not knowing how to play. I had one girl here joined us at 17; never done any sport in her life, slightly overweight. Three years later she made the London Towers women's team, national league. Fantastic.

"What we have here is commitment," says Rogers, slicing the air like a conductor waving a baton. "It's not that I get the best players here [compared with the glamour of clubs such as the London Towers and the London Leopards, the Brixton Topcats are short on appeal]. If you come to Brixton you don't get any freebies, and I'm on their case from the day they walk in. We work our backsides off. Now a lot of kids won't like the sound of that."

But still they come. The juniors start to arrive at six o'clock and pretty soon the court is busy with children ranged from five years old to 16, mostly boys but a few girls too, doing warm-up exercises and drills. There is a tangible feeling of young energy and earnest determination in the air. Eight-year-old Sotonye Ogan used to cry when he first joined the Topcats two years ago, remarks his mother, "because Jimmy is quite firm with them, but now he's fine. His schoolwork is better too because he can see through playing basketball that if you keep working at it, you improve."

The best stories in sport are those which spread the net wider than the sport itself, and the Brixton Topcats are full of them. Andrea Congreaves, who came through the Topcat ranks, has broken three records by becoming the only Brit to play in the American Women's National Basketball Association the highest-ever point-scorer in the history of women's college basketball and in 1995, the highest British earner - male or female - in theentire sport.

Ajou Deng, a near seven-foot tall Sudanese boy who came to Britain as a refugee, started in Brixton, was rejected by a Dairylea Dunkers professional league team and was then encouraged by Rogers to apply to an American university. He has just finished his first year at the University of Connecticut, the current American national collegiate champions. Kojo Bonsu-Mensah, now a member of the England national team, cut his teeth with the Topcats.

It is talent like this which Laszlo Nemeth lambasts the English Basketball Association for failing to do enough to develop. Eligibility rules within the professional league mean that five out of 10 team places can, and do, go to foreign players. Nemeth says: "If you go to Jimmy Rogers' club and develop English players then you don't have to import. Entrepreneurs want quick returns on their money, but it takes time to nurture talent. English basketball has to decide what the goal is: having family entertainment [in the form of the Dairylea Dunkers league] or top- level [international] competition. As far as I can see,winning is the best entertainer."

Given more financial help, Jimmy Rogers will see to that.