It is a measure of the low profile of domestic basketball in Britain that the biggest story in recent years was the decision of John Amaechi, the former Utah Jazz forward, to announce his homosexuality last month.
This time last year the controversial appearance of Dennis Rodman, the reality television contestant and former Chicago Bull in the British Basketball League (BBL) commanded a similar volume of column inches. Now, the challenge facing a sport in transition is to create genuine interest in the personalities who will be key to raising that profile before the 2012 Olympics in London.
Great Britain will be represented at the Games and the BBL has been recognised in the forthcoming Mallin review into UK basketball as an invaluable partner on the road to what will be a tournament to rival the World Championship.
Yesterday’s thrilling BBL Trophy final demonstrated why there is such faith in a league that continues to break new ground in attempting to lift the status of the sport in this country beyond the level of minority status.
A crowd in excess of 5,000, including 1,000 travelling Plymouth supporters, made for a compelling spectacle inside the magnificent setting of Newcastle’s home court, the Metro Radio Arena. The fixture was screened live on satellite television for the first time in several years and fans unable to make the trip could watch ball-by-ball coverage on the internet. A sport with its roots embedded firmly in America and, as a result, often pilloried by critics on this side of the Pond is making giant strides towards dispelling the myth that it deserves no more than a passing mention.
In the finest traditions of all great finals, the underdogs triumphed on Tyneside and, in so doing, destroyed Newcastle’s dream of lifting a third successive BBL Trophy title. Only nine days earlier, the Eagles, who claimed a clean sweep of all four domestic prizes last season, had beaten the Raiders by 24 points and they started on their home court as overwhelming favourites. However, that victory had been achieved against a Plymouth team missing their most destructive force and the return of the imposing centre, Carlton “Big C” Aaron, ensured that this would be an entirely different outcome.
From the start, the 6ft 9in former University of Missouri-Kansas City star, weighing in at 21st, caused Newcastle no end of problems in the paint. Aaron claimed 14 points in the first period as Plymouth led by three points going into the first break and the Raiders had extended their lead to five at the half. For the Eagles’ player-coach, Fabulous Flournoy, the omens were not good and a team who had proved impregnable last season never looked like rescuing their season as the clock ticked down on a disheartening defeat.
“It feels good to get that first bit of silverware,” Aaron, who finished as the game’s most valuable player with a double double of 25 points and 12 assists, said. “It means a lot to our coach [Gary Stronach] and to Plymouth. The Eagles are one of the best teams in the league. It feels terrific to get the MVP award. I’ve never won a game of this magnitude so to win this award is really important on a personal level.”
Newcastle, who must now triumph in the end-of-season play-offs if they are to salvage anything from a campaign ridden with internal strife and infighting, trailed by seven going into the final quarter and by as many as ten with four minutes remaining.
Flournoy accepted the blame for a disastrous result when he said: “We didn’t play well as a team and I made a lot of coaching mistakes. I can only blame myself for that.”
Quarter scores: 1, Newcastle 18 Plymouth 20; 2, Newcastle 35 Plymouth 40; 3, Newcastle 45 Plymouth 58.
Newcastle Eagles: T Walker 3pts, 5 rebounds; A Bridge 0, 4; T Sherlock 0, 2; S Robinson 15, 1; T Dorsey 20, 5; O Babalola 11, 7; D Defoe 2, 4; F Flournoy 12, 5. Did not play: J Hyatt, B McCotter.
Plymouth Raiders: A Gall 3, 1; G Love 11, 4; D Beasley 8, 4; G Moore 17, 12; A Lasker 10, 3; C Aaron 25, 12. Did not play: J Wakanena, J Burchell, G Nesbitt, J Danchie, A Nykanen.
Shooting percentages: Newcastle: Total field goals 25/62 (40.3%); three-point field goals 3/20 (15%); free throws 12/17 (70.6%). Plymouth: Total field goals 29/59 (49.2%); three-point field goals 5/13 (38.5%); free throws 11/20 (55%).
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