Sunday, 26 April 2009

Searching for the next Jordan

One of the most influential videos around in my early teenage years was Michael Jordan’s Playground.

The brilliant opening sequence featured some of the most amazing and sublime dunks and opponent-beating layups I’ve ever seen, which no All Star or NBA Jam slam dunk comp has ever managed to match for sheer finesse. The film was also a reminder that being cut from the high school team doesn’t need to end hopes of playing at an elite level.

I played at an undersized indoor court earlier this year at a school near Elephant and Castle and was struck immediately by a 20 foot poster featuring the famous Michael Jordan Wings photo. This shot was plastered on my wall and that of millions of other young fans, inspiring us to take either take up the sport, train harder for a higher grade team spot or score an elusive triple-double, depending on which level we were at.

Basketball flourished in Jordan’s era – hoops were nailed up on garage/shed walls across the world. Jordan’s sponsors could try to take credit for his massive worldwide exposure but the truth was the sheer ability and marketability of the player made him an easy sell in almost any market.

The point of this background is to ask, 19 years after Playground was released, where the sport now rates outside of its American homeland. Pre-credit crunch in Australia, provincial and capital city teams who filled 10,000 seat stadiums in the late 1980s were struggling to maintain a fan base and either downgrading their operations or shutting up shop entirely. Many UK teams in the national league seem to have suffered the same fate.

Basketball has still not grown into a mass participation sport in the UK like it is in France, Italy and Germany. The game ranked as the 18th most popular sport in England in Sport England’s Active People survey published in 2006.

Based simply on investment in outdoor facilities (and disregarding English weather for a moment), this shouldn’t have been the case.

Back in September 1996, the English Basketball Association created the Outdoor Basketball Initiative (OBI) with, as their old website states, “the aim of providing Basketball For All.”
“The then English Sports Council Lottery Sports Fund, Grant aid of £10 million has enabled 9,150 robust outdoor basketball Goals to be installed in 352 local authorities throughout England.”

I could be picking on word usage here but it shows an insight into the thinking of the bodies involved that they use the word “goals” here. Apt though, considering many of the outdoor courts I’ve seen in and around London so far have goals for football at each end and this seems to be their primary use.

In recent years, lottery funding bodies and sports councils have invested more than £315,000 to basketballscotland; contributed £19,950 to put up 21 hoops on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales; gave a Liverpool wheelchair basketball club £10,000 to purchase sports wheelchairs and equipment; and handed a Welsh club £20,000 to deliver a healthy living program to young people in primary schools.

The Welsh and Scottish sporting bodies seem to have matched funding with participation, where is the English association going wrong?

Sport England also offered to fund the sport to the tune of £1.7 million a year, on the condition England Basketball improved its administration, appointed a “high-calibre chairperson”, built sustainable grass roots participation and
developed world-class British teams.

Basing their challenges on the 2007 Mallin Basketball Review, Sport England said these changes were urgently needed to significantly drive up participation and improve performance on the world stage.

Former NBA star John Amaechi backed this latter view in an interview with late last year, slamming Great Britain's short-term approach to the 2012 Olympics.
The ex-Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz star, who helped take England to bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, said “right now our professional league is the worst in the world in terms of both the standard and professionalism”.

While Amaechi and NBA colleague Luol Deng, who finished eighth in the FIBA Europe Player of the Year Award for 2008, have good track records of promoting and developing the sport locally, England Basketball has to be hoping for a Michael Jordan figure to inspire the next generation of players and fans.

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