“No one really thinks the British, or team GB play basketball for some reason; I think they think we just sit here drinking tea and eating crumpets and that we don’t play basketball”.
— Laurent Irish, London Lions assistant coach
There’s something odd about basketball in Britain; it’s a sport that requires literal lift off, players defying gravity to gain an advantage, yet the game seems static and lacking any lift when being taken seriously as a sport in the UK.
It’s not even as if the demand is missing, figures from the Telegraph in 2016 estimated that 218,000 people play the sport each week. But there remains the certain stereotype that basketball is a non-entity in the UK; cast aside with zero recognition and forever destined to be that niche game taken up by the few.
From an Olympic point of view, it is probably fair to make such a statement – Team GB have hardly managed to ignite even the most optimistic British basketball fan that there’s hope on the international level. Just the two Olympic appearances – both in the London Games, 1948 and 2012 – which only mustered two victories; it was over before it started.
However, with the Olympics came a platform, a platform for a stadium in London to be utilised to its full and showcase basketball on the international stage; the Copper Box arena – now home to British Basketball League (BBL) team, the London Lions.
We met the Lions’ assistant coach, Laurent Irish, a guy who has dedicated his life to the sport. Born in Forest Gate, London, Laurent got involved with basketball at the age of 15, a field he found he could maximise his communication skills and team player instincts.
A daily routine for the coach will consist of a 6am start, where he runs a breakfast club for kids from Raine’s Foundation School. He’ll then conduct basketball lessons and fitness sessions in the morning, whilst moving onto behavioural classes in the afternoon.
“During the afternoon I do a lot of mentoring, a lot of 1-to-1 sessions where I sit kids down, talk about behaviours, things to do, things not to do and how to focus on school work… that energy could get channeled into the wrong places”
The work Laurent does with kids using basketball as a tool for enjoyment, to stay out of trouble, and as a focus which practices discipline and teamwork is the dedication the Lions’ assistant coach is going to drive engagement and participation of the game; if it’s there at the foundation, it will only grow.
Inspiring the youth is only part of Laurent’s involvement in the game. After the basketball preacher’s work with Raine’s Foundation School kids, he then coaches the pros, the London Lions at the Copper Box.
Laurent’s aim is to grow the sport, encourage further sponsorship so that the sport has more financial backing to evolve and have a wider appeal:
“I think people don’t think there’s basketball in the UK, so there’s not really a perception, but for people who are in basketball, their perception is that it needs more financial backing and more TV coverage…
“We’re just about promoting it, pushing it out there; it’s all about getting it out there”.
With the continual work of people like Laurent at both grassroots and pro-level, the sport will hopefully widen its audience and marketability in the UK. With Team GB players like Luol Deng playing in the NBA, the following of the sport from across the pond should develop with the pull-factor of not such an American dominated game.
Laurent eludes to how basketball is a sport “for all”, and there’s no reason why it can’t be a competitive major sport in the UK with a bit of financial backing and continual development at grassroot level.