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Saturday spotlight: Boro's George Friend meets Wildcats coach Davie
8:00am Saturday 12th October 2013 in Sport
IN the first of a series of interviews from The Northern Echo’s guest writer George Friend, the Middlesbrough defender met up with Durham Wildcats’ coach Lee Davie this week to find out how top level basketball in this country differs from life as a professional footballer
AFTER recently witnessing my first ever NBA game in Manchester, where Oklahoma City Thunder played the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, the excited basketball fan in me was able to get a taste of some world class action.
Unfortunately this was a one-off game before the teams had to return to the United States for their opening league games. However, on our doorstep ‘downtown’ here in the North-East, we’re lucky enough to have two strong, growing teams in British Basketball’s top league (The BBL), the Durham Wildcats and Esh Group Eagles Newcastle.
The Wildcats are spearheaded by coach Lee Davie, an experienced product of the Great Britain coaching system and former national league player at U20 level.
Durham Wildcats coach Lee Davie
“When I came out of the college environment at East Durham I knew I was going to be involved in basketball coaching to some capacity,” said Davie. “My roles have included community coach for Newcastle, England U20 performance analyst and also England assistant coach.”
The Wildcats have begun the campaign in encouraging fashion and beating the London Lions seems only the tip of things to come for the ambitious coach and his hungry Wildcats squad.
“We’ve started off extremely well,” said Davie. “Against the Lions we took an early lead and the game came to a big finish when we hit two big three pointers to win. It was great for the crowd because it was so exciting and it gave them the opportunity to see what we can do.
“As soon as the ball hit the net everyone was up on their feet; it was definitely the experience we wanted everyone to have. We want to set a franchise record for wins this year, with a cup run with four competitions available. We want to finish well within the top eight teams so we guarantee a playoff place.
“Progression is the key. We’ve had some good early indications that we’re moving in the right direction. We really want to increase crowd support over the year and want them to see what we can achieve.”
As a professional sportsman and keen on other sports, I was interested to look deeper into British basketball and understand how different the two sports really are - aside from the obvious use of hands instead of feet when being played.
The Wildcats are linked with Durham University, boasting fantastic facilities and attracting foreign players in a bid to rebound the franchise up the league and add depth to the squad.
The main difference that immediately was apparent to me from an athlete’s perspective was the heavy influence of academic education within the franchise.
In football, unfortunately, there’s still a distinct lack of thought for the future when it comes to young professional footballers, even though that side of things are still improving. The risk of injury or simply being released leaves them highly susceptible to a lack of career options once their time in football is over.
Durham Wildcats coach Lee Davie has some tips for Boro footballer George Friend
There are courses available from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). And while young apprentices do achieve some qualifications in their time as an academy player, the gulf in academic status and success is enormous in comparison to basketball. “Here at Durham we give players the opportunity to carry out the academic side, whether they’re at the beginning, middle or end of their careers,” explained Davie. “Eight out of the 12 in the squad here are University students, postgraduates mainly.
“The Americans are particularly attracted to us because they’re able to do their masters degree in one year over here with huge financial benefits.
“They get the opportunity to play professional basketball, while gaining a degree and being able to market themselves with the possibility of moving onto other teams in Europe and so on.
“On the flip side, the lads come out of a great experience with something to show for and fall back on if the basketball route doesn’t work out.”
Being a BBL player might not have the financial rewards of a top professional footballer in the short term but there is a sustainability that has to be commended, allowing players to continue a career elsewhere. The structure is similar to the system seen in American colleges.
“In contrast to football the basketball players are paid in the way of academic scholarships, accommodation and food deals, which when added up, for a regular student, is a substantial sum,” said Davie.
“This huge amount saved by players on these scholarships is probably more than what they would gain as professionals coming out of college and into the European Leagues, so it’s certainly beneficial for them. You have to make sure people are set up and ready for when their career in basketball is over.”
The Wildcats squad carry out a strict and organised training schedule not too dissimilar to ours at Middlesbrough Football Club. On a Monday, following a Sunday night match, they have a cool down, recovery day. Tuesday includes a video analysis session followed by a gym workout then training from 8pm-10pm. I’d like to see the look on some the faces at Middlesbrough if the manager made us train that late!
On Wednesday there are students matches where the squad represent Durham University. Thursdays involves another gym session and more late evening training. Friday is the tactical and technical day for individual coaching and on a Saturday afternoon there is the chance for preparations before the match.
In comparison to professional football, this rather relentless training schedule doesn’t differ too much from what we do on a daily basis, other than the few extra hours daily training we put in. However, you have to bear in mind that the basketball players in this country are carrying out University degrees too.
One aspect of the BBL, a difference that is easy to notice, is the lack of funding and support. The dominance of football is unlikely to ever be surpassed by any sport in England, as its popularity is colossal. That’s not to say that British basketball is insignificant, the BBL is growing and with the NBA becoming more popular outside of America, a knock-on effect is evident.
“Funding is always key and Sport England have put a bit back into British basketball; there are too many good people involved in the game for funding to be cut,’ said Davie.
The inclusion of foreign players in the BBL emulates the influx of overseas talent, which dominates our top football divisions.
Davie said: “We’ve got three non-EU players, all from America, two Europeans and a British contingent so it’s pretty much a fifty-fifty split.”
Typically there are discrepancies between the two sports when it comes to crowd attendance. Most lower league football teams average higher gates than the BBL franchises but encouragingly there is growth in basketball fan bases. Davie recognises this growth in interest and support. He said: “We need a big crowd and lots of fans to turn our home game venue into a fortress. The game itself is improving and the coverage of basketball is improving in this country, so in the long term I can see the BBL becoming a full professional league, hopefully competing with mainstream sports in this country, with big franchises and crowds.
“The BBL has its own TV station, where online you are able to watch a game a week, which is great access for the fans.”
From the excitement and enjoyment I witnessed in Manchester alongside thousands of other basketball fans, I feel I’m not alone in saying it would be great to see the BBL bounce into a larger nationwide profile.
The NBA may be miles away, but we have our own league here in England of which we can be proud. Refreshingly, there is a growing ethos in the world of professional basketball that encourages education, so that players coming through the development pathway gain academic qualifications as well as the skills and experience enjoyed through training and playing.
My first shot of live basketball may have been at the hands of Kevin Durrant and his Oklahoma City Thunder team-mates, yet my next experience could well be a fiercely contested Wildcats-Eagles derby – I might get my ticket now!
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