John Amaechi in 2012 (Getty Images)
John Amaechi made his mark in the NBA by springing out of end-of-the-bench obscurity to play fantastic ball for the 1999-00 Orlando Magic. That Magic team was one of the first of the NBA’s kind to, as Chad Ford put it back then, burn the village in order to save it – the Magic front office willingly dismantled a third-seeded playoff squad in order to avert eventual mediocrity and start over with cap space in a 2000 summer that featured Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, and Tracy McGrady on the free agent block. Between then, the “rebuilding” Magic somehow fashioned a near-playoff run out of a cast of what appeared at the time to be throwaways, a motley crew led by coach Doc Rivers, and a 41-win squad that remains one of my favorite teams of the modern era.
Retired from the league and now back in his native England, Amaechi is having a terrible time trying to outfit the country’s basketball program with all the mod cons that Americans take for granted. The OBE-awarded former NBA center is attempting to turn London’s Olympic handball arena into a basketball-themed center designed to lure in players in what has proven at times to be a basketball-mad city. Amaechi runs a center in Manchester that already draws well amongst basketball-playing Britons, and he can’t understand why London won’t turn the handball courts over to those that want to suit up.
The usually-eloquent Amaechi, owner of one of the first Twitter feeds I followed, ramped up the language in frustration while talking to the Independent’s Tim Rich:
“The legacy has always been b******s,” said Amaechi, who was on the diversity board of the London Organising Committee and was an ambassador for the Games. “Legacy costs money, legacy takes forward planning. My centre in Manchester has 2,500 coming through its doors every week; that centre would have had 10,000 playing basketball.
“It has four full-sized courts; I have three. It has full-time access; I have 5pm to midnight. It would have been jammed but it would never have been as profitable as hiring it out for five-a-side football.”
These are dire times for basketball in the UK.
Great Britain’s basketball team did well to compete in the 2012 Olympics, but the squad was led by a clearly-hurting Luol Deng, and was only awarded a spot in the Olympic pool because of its status as the host country. To hear Rich tell it in the Independent, “basketball was one of those sports that did not linger in the Olympic limelight,” which is a shame given the country’s appreciation for sport. It took a last-ditch effort for the country’s ruling hoops organization, British Basketball, just to receive funding for another year. And it’s very possible that this funding could be taken away if GB plays poorly in this summer’s European Championships. Without Deng in tow, a legitimate possibility, the writing may be on the proverbial wall.
Which is truly awful. It’s true that I’m the hoop blogosphere’s resident Anglophile, but even with those allegiances pushed aside it’s important to remember that GB doesn’t have to burn down this particular village in order to save it post-2013. And for those that aren’t sent over the moon hoping basketball thrives in England, we should all remember how the NBA’s significant Twitter following went absolutely bonkers while watching handball during last summer’s Olympics; mainly because it reminded us of the sport we hold so dear.
Handball’s had its chance, Amaechi would probably contend, so why not give the space up to a sport that’s clearly on the make? If Amaechi can run his courts to great success in Manchester, why couldn’t a similarly-styled setup thrive in London? Especially at this most crucial of times?
“I would be very surprised if we even had had a team in 2016; I’d be shocked, frankly,” said Amaechi. “I know why they did what they did in 2012. They were hosting the Games, they had to have a team so they flung one together using some NBA players, but the point guard was my age (42). Luol will still be eligible to play in Rio but probably won’t.
“If we started now, we could put a side together for 2020. It would be competitive and it could qualify on its own merits. To build five more basketball centres would cost you £18m-£20m and then you would have the basis of a British team that would be young and raw and motivated by the fear of younger players taking their place.”
England is working through many of the mitigating economic factors that the States are dealing with, currently, and what could possibly constitute a $30 million price tag for basketball infrastructure support is still quite a chunk of quid. Wouldn’t it be worth it, though, to grow a sport that could create unending streams of local revenue years down the line?
And, as it was when James Naismith nailed that first peach basket up in Springfield, wouldn’t it be worth it just to give the kids something to do when it’s cold out? Legacy be damned, it’s time for England to do what’s right.
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- John Amaechi