The only way you would not know that I am British is if you:
a) have never been to this website before today,
b) have been here before but understandably don’t read any of the words I write, or
c) know so little about vexillology that you didn’t even realise that the site’s logo had a flag in it.
Because of my nationality – English rather than British, but we’ll worry about that later – it is inevitable and sensible that the state of British basketball will get some coverage here. And with the news of Ben Gordon’s commitment to the national team still moist astride our lips, today is no different.
There follows a lengthy breakdown.
Basketball in Britain is still so fledgling that even the term ‘fledgling’ sells it short. The standard of the British Basketball League is so far below its European peers that almost any Division I NCAA starter could get a starting spot there. Worse still, the league damn nearly went bankrupt at the turn of the century, which isn’t something top tier leagues should be doing (although it has happened elsewhere on the lower rungs).
Beyond the professional game, basketball itself is not fairing much better. While the sport is played in many schools these days, it’s not played in all of them; we didn’t play it in mine, for example, and as a result I’ve never played a game of basketball. To say that basketball trails behind many other sports in this country is an understatement on a par with calling the Vietnam conflict ‘feisty;’ it just doesn’t do it justice.
(The local council did eventually install a hoop in my childhood village after much petitioning, but when I say they “installed a hoop,” I actually mean that they put a pole in a muddy field, nailed a hoop to the top, left, and didn’t bother measuring its height off the ground or removing the big empty shed right next to it, meaning you could shoot from straight on only. Try as we might, shooting free throws with a muddy ball at a 13-foot rim, unable to take a dribble for fear of the spectacular carom that awaited or of running into the shed, was never all that much fun. I think I shot 16 for 5,145 lifetime. Bad times.)
Things are changing, though. Slowly but surely, we’re starting to get there. The domestic league is still behind, but Britain (and England in particular) are starting to place (or pick up) some good big men prospects abroad.
Joel Freeland was a first-round draft pick of the Blazers back in 2006, who is slowly making a name for himself in the powerhouse Spanish ACB. Another Blazers draft pick, Dante Cunningham, has also worked out for the British team, and although he doesn’t have the pre-requisite passport yet, we remain hopeful. Former Hornets forward Sean Banks is also eligible for a British passport, and supposedly in the process of getting one. And other British big man prospects that you may have heard of include Dan Clark (Estudiantes Madrid, ACB), Justin Robinson (Rider), Eric Boateng (just graduated from Arizona State University) and Matthew Bryan-Amaning (University of Washington).
There’s some established talent out there, too. Luol Deng, you know about. One-time NBA big man Robert Archibald is also playing in the ACB to a high level, even if he is Scottish. Former NBA draft pick Andy Betts – a man able to make the CV-boosting claim that he was once traded for Peja Stojakovic – is still plying his trade in the Greek first division with Aris, a EuroLeague team this year. Ex-Raptors forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu is a stalwart of the national team, and finally found the NBA employment last season that he should have had for the last few years. Michael Olowokandi has a British passport, as has Steve Nash (whom we sadly can’t have). And worse case scenario, there’s always Providence’s Randall Hanke.
It took a while, but we have moved on from John Amaechi.
When Great Britain won the right to host the 2012 Olympics, the constituent national teams (England, Scotland etc) were so far off the pace that we wouldn’t even have been allowed to a team in our home games, because they would have been too uncompetitive. European national teams are graded by Division, and only Division A teams are eligible for Olympic play; at the time, the newly-formed Britain team was in Division B, alongside such illustrious competition as Luxembourg and Romania. To qualify for Division A, Britain had to finish either first or second in the 2007 EuroBasket Division B tournament, something that they’ve never done before.
However, led by Luol Deng, they did. Comfortably.
That wasn’t enough, though. Now in Division A, Britain still had to come through their qualifying group to win a place at the 2009 EuroBasket Division A tournament, where they would compete alongside powerhouses such as Spain, Russia and Greece. Only by qualifying for EuroBasket would Britain be deemed good enough to field a team at their own Olympics. And qualifying would not be easy; they had to come through a group that also featured Israel, the Czech Republic and Bosnia.
However, led by Luol Deng, they did. Comfortably.
Once in EuroBasket Division A, things got tricky. Deng was unavailable due to the stress fracture in his leg, and this left the team using Robert Archibald and Pops Mensah-Bonsu as offensive focal points. If you’ve ever seen Pops Mensah-Bonsu play offensively, you’d know that it’s best to let him just run around enthusiastically without the ball, but if you saw GB play in EuroBasket, you’d have seen multiple wing isolations run for him. This wasn’t due to bad coaching; Britain are coached by Chris Finch, the current head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who got great results out of an overmatched team. The team had about 56 different ways to feed the post, devised by Finch, all executed excellently. But without Deng, the team just didn’t have enough ability, and it cost them. Despite leading the eventual champions Spain for much of their game, including by double figures at one point, Britain lost that game and their every game in the tournament. They competed in all of them, but they ran out of talent.
Every player mentioned so far, except Justin Robinson and Steve Nash, has been a frontcourt player. Therein lies the problem. While a frontcourt of Luol Deng and Andrew Sullivan at small forward, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Joel Freeland at power forward, and Robert Archibald and Andy Betts at centre was good enough to compete, the lack of backcourt is what ended matters. Deng was a primary ball-handler for GB not because he is one, but because he had to be because of the painful dearth of guards. Britain’s backcourt at EuroBasket 2009 was as follows:
– Nate Reinking: 36-year-old naturalised American guard, formerly of Kent State, playing for Finch’s former team Dexia Mons-Hainaut. Played in the British league until he was 32, making him eligible for nationalisation, yet has played only in England, Belgium and the MAC. That’s not top-tier pedigree. Good lefty jump shooter, but offers little else against premium defences; can’t get in the paint, can’t finish there, not much of a ball-handler even at 6’0, slow, unathletic, and attackable defensively accordingly. He started at point because he was the team’s only shooter.
– Jarrett Hart: 29-year-old 6’4 naturalised American guard, formerly of Kansas State. Has spent the last three years playing for Keravnos in Cyprus. Good mid-range shooter, but not a great three-point shooter, which wouldn’t have been too bad were he not in for his shooting.
– Michael Lenzly: 29-year-old 6’3 off-guard with the most pedigree of the bunch. Graduated from Wofford, and spent this season with Czech Republic team Nymburk; while the Czech league is not of note, Nymburk were a EuroCup team, so Lenzly played against decent competition this year. Was formerly Reinking and Finch’s teammate at Dexia Mons-Hainuat; solid at most facets of the game, but not especially good at anything when measured through the lens of the top tier. At least he had the decency to be born here.
– Flinder Boyd: 29-year-old 5’11 naturalised American guard, currently playing with Aquas De Sousas Club Ourense Balonceto in Spain. Ourense play in the LEB Gold. Boyd averaged 5.4 points and 1.9 assists in 22.5 minutes per game this season, with more shot attempts than points. You get the idea.
That’s it. Those were the four. Those were our horses. There were no significant absences due to injury; indeed, the only notable backcourt absence was former California Golden Bears guard Richard Midgley, a former national team mainstay and quality shooter who retired after the 2008/09 season aged only 26 due to injury. It is not meant to be disrespectful to the respective individuals when I say that they are not of the calibre to which Britain now play. But they just weren’t. Flinder Boyd was matched up against Ricky Rubio. Nate Reinking had to try to do something about Milos Teodosic. Boyd in particular was overmatched, and it wasn’t his fault. It’s just how it was. It just wasn’t fair.
However, now we have a world-class guard. The game just got switched.
The difference in talent between Ben Gordon and those incumbents is roughly equal to the difference between the eruption of Krakatoa and a termite farting. By putting together a line-up of Gordon/anyone/Deng/Pops/Archibald, with Freeland and Bryan-Amaning off the bench, Britain are now going to be much more able to compete with any team; it matters not who the ‘anyone’ at two guard is. (It would be nice if it was Kelenna Azubuike, who was born in London; however, it is reported that he is not eligible for a British passport. His parents were not in the country legally at the time of his birth, and Azubuike’s passport application was turned down in 2007. It’s a shame, because he’s the missing piece.)
That line-up is still flawed; after five years of watching Ben Gordon occasionally masquerade as a point guard for my Chicago Bulls, I am left in no doubt that he isn’t one. He dribbles too high, shows no obvious natural affinity for the pick-and-roll, has little passing vision, and just isn’t that good at getting the ball over halfcourt every time. The team ideally needs someone that can do that. (Kirk Hinrich is the obvious candidate, but he’s cup-tied after having played for Team USA back in 2006. And it might also factor that he has no British heritage.)
Gordon is, however, a bloody fantastic shot-maker. And this can’t be underestimated on a team that used Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Jarrett Hart as go-to guys down the stretch of their game versus Spain. With Gordon, Britain would probably have won that game. With Gordon and Deng, they definitely would. The transition of British basketball from humiliating to competitive has been very short and very sweet. It is largely because of Deng, to whom we owe a fantastic debt that we can never repay.
And by helping to recruit Gordon to the team, Deng might have done us his biggest favour yet.