Leap of faith in England

Over here: Basketball and ice-hockey start new seasons leading an import boom in British sport. Andrew Baker reports
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Deon Hames, the Sheffield Sharks' latest acquisition, telephoned his mother back home in Trenton, New Jersey. Outside the window of his hotel room in the small industrial town of Groningen, in Holland, the rain fell in sheets. "Hey, ma," he said. "My first week, and this is already my third country." Some sports stars - Hakeem Olajuwon, say, or Shaquille O' Neal - might consider a damp Dutch afternoon unglamorous. But this is what Hames signed up for. Play for Sheffield, and see the world.

The fact that Hames, 22, a powerful 5ft 9in guard, was on a pre-season tour with Sheffield in Holland last week is testimony to the high regard that young American basketball players now have for the game in Europe. Until recently the only Americans playing here were veterans past their sell-by date in the NBA looking for a couple of easy seasons before retirement. But word is getting around. "A lot of the kids in college in the States now are talking about playing in Europe," Hames said. "Everybody knows that the standard of play in Europe has become a lot more competitive, and coming here has to be a good way of getting on as a professional."

The rise of European basketball was underlined by some strong performances at the Atlanta Olympics, where the mighty US Dream Team had their slumbers rudely disturbed: at the halfway stage in the final, they led Yugoslavia by just five points.

The Yugoslavs - and Lithuania, who took the bronze medal - did a superb propaganda job. So that when coaches from European teams went looking for young talent in the US after the games, they found that many college players would consider a move to Europe.

Hames seems barely to have given the matter another thought. "When the opportunity was offered to me I just jumped all over it," he said. "I'm a professional basketball player and that's what I'm here for. I'm just looking forward to playing some good basketball. I'm really grateful that these people have taken me under their wings."

It is hardly a philanthropic gesture on the part of the Sharks. Their coach, Jim Brandon, believes that he has made a real discovery. "What we have here is a quicksilver guard," he said. "Deion is a real bubbly character, and exceptionally fast. He's kind of like a young Alton Byrd, only more reckless. He is slight, but deceptively tough. He is tremendously strong for his size: every inch is muscle."

The deal came about through basketball's equivalent of the old boy network: Hames's coach at Rider University in New Jersey, Kevin Bannon, is a former playing colleague of Brandon's. Tapes were exchanged, and the Sheffield man flew over to take a look. "What I saw was one classy young man," he recalled. The deal was done.

Brandon acknowledged that transplanting an inexperienced player like Hames is a gamble. "But it is a bet that is hedged," he insisted. "In the first place, I know how he has been trained. Kevin knows all about conditions over here and Deon will be well prepared. But the number one thing is, Deon can take it. He's certainly doing well so far. And we are going to take good care of him."

On the Dutch leg of their pre-season tour, special care meant rooming with Roger Huggins, the veteran England international forward. The two seemed to hit it off well: "Roger has been just great to me," Hames said.

The youngster has already rewarded his mentors with some spectacular play on tour, orchestrating a 84-73 victory over RZG Groningen with 15 points and many assists. "Amazing stuff," Brandon called it.

The grey industrial landscape of Groningen reminded many on the team of Sheffield. But to eyes used to the mean streets of Trenton, even Sheffield seems like a rural idyll. "I'm a city boy," Hames said. "I'm used to being around a whole lot of buildings, so Sheffield is kind of a change. It's a little slow, but I love the countryside." Hames is going to be a big hit with the Sheffield City Council Public Relations Office.

Brandon is convinced that his young star will be the first of many players fresh out of college in the US to use the English league as a gateway into Europe. "The game here is developing into a springboard into the continent," he said. "England is a great place to come and show your stuff."

Groningen, however, is not. Deon Hames severed the connection to New Jersey, glanced at the downpour outdoors, and settled down to find something to watch on the Cartoon Network.