Newcastle Eagles were crowned British Basketball League champions last weekend for the sixth time in nine years under Fab Flournoy. Sports Writer Steph Clark met up with the New York-born player-coach and found out how the 40-year-old has always had to prove people wrong.
THROUGHOUT his life, Fab Flournoy has always defied the odds.
From growing up in one of the most notorious places on earth to proving he can still compete at the top level of British basketball at the age of 40 with Newcastle Eagles.
As a youngster, Flournoy was discouraged from chasing his dreams, because in his own words “people who grew up where I did weren’t expected to ever leave.” Instead, young men from the Bronx in New York were expected to be sucked into a spiral of drugs, gangs and guns that would, in many cases, end in death.
Flournoy was no different. Brought up by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet and put food on the table for four children, life didn’t get off to the best of starts. He had the hope “sucked out” and replaced by a “dog-eat-dog” mentality, but it would be that negative advice that fuelled a teenage Flournoy’s desire to succeed and prove people wrong.
“Being told that I would not achieve when I was younger only made me want it more,” admitted the Eagles player-coach, who broke the all-time BBL appearance record with his 541st game in February. “There were times when we were squatters and times we didn’t have food. My mother was in and out of jobs.
“It was hard being a young black youth in the Bronx. I’m not going to say I was a saint. I got into a lot of trouble and school wasn’t for me.
“Aspirations were very weak and people used to say you would never get out of the neighbourhood. I lived past the age of 21 without being shot, sent to jail or selling drugs and that’s a huge achievement because it doesn’t happen very often.
“I remember there was a shooting at one of my high school games. You weren’t expected to go anywhere in life. There was no hope and if you had hope, it was considered a bad thing. It was pulled out of you and replaced with a dog-eat-dog mentality. You start to believe it, but I decided I wanted to have a dream.”
While a college scholarship gave Flournoy a way out of the Bronx, there are loved ones that didn’t make it. His older brother, Divine, was shot and killed at the age of 22, while his younger brother took a bullet to the chest on the street aged 23 and only just survived. In 2005, he received a dreaded call from across the Atlantic that one of his best friends had also succumbed to the streets of the Bronx.
It is a world away from the life he now leads as the driving force behind a club that has dominated British basketball under his watch, winning six BBL titles, five BBL play-offs titles, five BBL Trophies and three BBL Cups, even if the memories of a difficult upbringing never go away.
By the age of 15, Flournoy had only taken a tentative interest in basketball, but a desire to own a pair of sneakers led him to the courts.
“I only started playing because I wanted a pair of sneakers and my mother couldn’t afford them. I was 15. That’s late to start any sport.
“You have to believe in yourself because no matter how bad things are it could always be worse. Once you realise you can draw opportunities out of the bleakest situations and that you can still become something, whatever it is you do, you end up wanting more.”
That is perhaps why the Eagles have continued to flourish under Flournoy even when others have written them off. No-one in Newcastle has ever doubted the 40-year-old even though he openly admits he didn’t want to come here, but when he arrived he quickly realised there was nowhere else he would rather be.
He explained: “I loved Birmingham and I loved Sheffield and I didn’t want to leave either team at the time. I was playing for some of the great coaches.
“I never wanted to leave Birmingham and I never wanted to leave Sheffield. When I got to Newcastle I didn’t want to be here and I didn’t want to coach. I just came to do the best I possibly could.
“The one reason why I love it here more than any other place, and I’m glad I came, is because the city and the North-East have loved me more than any other club did.
“Sport here is different to what it is anywhere else. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a culture, it’s the heartbeat, it’s a religion. It means more to everyone. It matters.
“That took me back to when I was a kid and I just started playing. Here, if you play with your heart and if you give it your all, the North-East will love you forever and you don’t get that anywhere.
“I was surprised when I came because I didn’t know it was like that. It became a place I wanted to be and where I wanted to give something back what it has given to me. It’s given me a sense of pride, a feeling of home. It changed my whole outlook on what I was doing.
“Even though there is a fierce derby going on between the clubs in the North-East, it is always put to the side when it comes to the rest of the country. It’s us against them. We aren’t a big huge city, but we are family here.
“The reward you get from the fans is much more than the reward you get in the bank account. At the top level of some sports the guys earn huge amounts of money, but there are sports like basketball and women’s football that don’t have the money that the Premier League clubs have.
“They don’t have the luxuries and the financial resources. They’re doing it for the love of the game and the fans and for the sport they play. I’m truly honoured to have had the opportunity to do that in an area where everything I do will be appreciated. In the off-season, I don’t go anywhere, I’m here.”