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The Thunderdome in Lewisham – home of the basketball club London Thunder – is reverberating with squeaking shoes on polished maple and the boom of dozens of balls being bounced simultaneously. Watching over this is coach Steve Bucknall, one of the biggest legends of the sport this side of the Atlantic and the first-ever Englishman to play in the NBA, for the LA Lakers. And he knows the power of his story. “When these kids start playing basketball, their dream is to play in the NBA,” he says. “And let’s be honest – I’m the number one example.”
To date, at least 30 players who honed their skills with London Thunder have gone on to compete for their country, played college basketball in the US, or been signed professionally. Among the recent examples are Kavell Bigby-Williams, who was signed by the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets in 2019, and Rowell Graham, spotted by Bucknall at 15, who plays professionally in Europe. “They’ve seen others do it, so they know there is a pathway,” says Bucknall.
Men’s Health is speaking to Bucknall at the senior National League team’s first session back since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted this spring. There is a heightened energy crackling in the air.
By the side of the court, 23-year-old Tyler Sealy laces up his shoes. Sealy is another success story. Introduced to the sport as a shy nine-year-old boy, he now plays college basketball in New York. In the “fall”, he’ll return to the US for his final year. But, like many of London Thunder’s alumni, he likes to train here in the off-season.
“My friend introduced me to London Thunder, and I fell in love with the game,” he says. “I love how competitive it is. It’s a great stage to show off my physical skills. I also love how mentally challenging it is, day in and day out. Playing college basketball has been my dream since day one.”
For talented players such as Sealy, the sport opens up opportunities they might not normally have access to. “Basketball has taken me around the world,” he says. “And I honestly think it’s made me a better person.”
Ask any player what they have gained from their time at London Thunder and you’ll hear a similar story. They don’t list the skills and tricks that they use on the court, or detail the improvements they’ve made to their cardiovascular fitness. Instead, they tell you that they have learned discipline, focus, communication, teamwork and accountability. “It teaches you about growing from a boy to a man,” says Luke Akoto, 18, another of the senior players getting ready for tonight’s session.
For players who show extraordinary ability, London Thunder supports their applications to American schools or European academies. Others get discovered by word of mouth or “video tracking”. Some players create showreels and post them on YouTube in the hope of being spotted by a scout.
Basketball encourages young players to be ambitious beyond proficiency in the game. The promise – distant yet attainable – of a career abroad is a powerful motivational tool. “It gives us an opportunity to instil education into their minds,” says Bucknall. “If you want to go to the US and get a scholarship, you’ve got to go to school. It’s pretty simple.”
Rowell Graham, 26, exemplifies this. When Bucknall met him, Graham was 15 and struggling to make his way through the education system. “I’d been labelled as a bad kid, so they put me on referral,” he says. “I was going to school but not to my lessons – just literally sitting in a white room.” One day, a friend told Graham that an ex-NBA player was running a coaching session, so he decided to go along. “The whole practice, I did what coach Steve said. Then once we had a moment to do what we wanted, I grabbed the ball and dunked it. Steve saw that and invited me down to the club.”
After that day, Graham never missed a session. Realising that many of his teammates had started playing aged nine or 10, he knew that he needed to put some extra work in. “After practice, I’d get home late and go straight to the basketball court across from my house. At 10pm, my stepmum would be saying, ‘Are you not coming in?’ It was sleep, wake up, eat, play, repeat. I didn’t take any days off.”
Bucknall helped to enrol Graham in a different school (“Honestly, the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says), and his game went from strength to strength. “I went to Leeds Beckett University for a year, then I took the chance to play professionally in Spain. I transferred to a higher division, then that team got promoted.” Graham has represented England in the European Basketball Championship and played for Great Britain in the European Under-20 Championship. Despite his professional success, he says that his proudest moment was competing in the National Basketball League final with London Thunder. “That was so much hype, because of the team chemistry. I’d been with those guys for so long.”
The players describe the club as a “second home” and their teammates as “brothers”. They look up to basketball legends such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, but also to each other.
London Thunder may be one of the more successful clubs, but the rising popularity of basketball is not limited to the capital. Between 2018 and 2019, more than 1.3 million people in England alone played basketball at least once a week, making it the second most practised team sport behind football. Meanwhile, a study by the NBA found that the UK is home to the largest online fan community in Europe.
This is not, however, currently reflected in how the sport is funded. When the government ring-fenced £300m to protect spectator sports during the coronavirus pandemic, rugby union was offered £135m, football £28m – and basketball just £4m.
“Why don’t people see the benefit of what we do?” asks Bucknall. “We know that football never runs out of funding, and rugby and cricket seem not to have a problem finding money. It’s minority sports like basketball and boxing that seem to struggle.”
Bucknall believes that a boost to funding would deliver more than just an increase in British champions. “When I first started the club, my focus was on winning trophies,” he says. “But then I realised that basketball does a lot more. I knew in my heart that it did, because I grew up in a tough neighbourhood and I could have taken a very different path.”
Indeed, London Thunder’s work with young people has been recognised by the London Crime Reduction Board’s anti-gang strategy. According to the City Hall group, it has helped to direct vulnerable young people towards education and opened up employment. opportunities.
This is something that 27-year-old Dwayne Camille, a former professional player, knows well. “I started getting into a lot of trouble in school and on the streets, and I didn’t have any direction,” he tells Men’s Health. “When I came to London Thunder, I found a sense of belonging. If you put in the work, Steve is willing to improve you. At that point in my life, that’s what I needed: someone to take time with me and help me grow as a person.”
Bucknall’s investment paid off. “We won the national championships with the under-18s; with the under-19s, we won two national championships. I played overseas in France and professionally here in the BBL [British Basketball League, for Leeds Force], where we won a Division One title,” says Camille. “All I know is to win.” This benefitted him off the court, too. “It helped me get to university on a scholarship and to get funding for equipment, kit and travel. Basketball saved my life. I thought university was only for people who want to be doctors or lawyers, those kinds of jobs. It was coach Steve telling us there are opportunities to play at university here that made me look at courses.”
Today, Camille is a coach and youth mentor. “Not everyone will end up playing in the NBA,” he says, “but it can still save a kid’s life. It can stop someone going to jail, it can bring someone to university and it can show someone a career path they didn’t know existed. Basketball is so much more than a game.”
Band of Brothers
Spending time among these players, you get a sense of how close they are. Throughout training, they’re hyping each other, clapping, cheering. As soon as one player eases up, another steps in: “Are you giving 80%? I didn’t wait four months to be back on the court for 80%!”
Among the under-18s, there is an unbridled enthusiasm for the sport. “I love the competition. I can’t really describe it – it’s the buzz,” says Ivan Eweka, a 15-year-old player who Bucknall believes has a bright future: “[Eweka] has been tapped to play for England one day and identified as having potential to go all the way.”
Eweka sees that path, too. “My dream is to go to America, play college ball and then hopefully make it to the NBA,” he says. “So, I’m just working hard to get there.”
The atmosphere is similarly intense among the seniors, but they combine that raw passion with precision. They speak about the game in a manner that is almost spiritual. “The saying ‘ball is life’ sums it up,” says Ashley Meaden, a 30-year-old player who has been with London Thunder since he was a teenager. “It’s a lifestyle, something you live and breathe. Once you get a feel for it, it changes your life.”
Many of the players, like Bucknall, feel frustrated at the shortfall in financing. “I’ve seen many players who were much more talented than me, but they didn’t have the chance to go and play overseas,” says Sealy. “That’s down to funding and cultivating grass-roots programmes like this. I go to schools to give talks and introduce the idea that going to play in the NBA is achievable, and that there are programmes like London Thunder that can cultivate talent. We have the resumé, we have the track record, it can be done. Kids just need the opportunity.”
There have been cuts at the elite level, too, because the money that a sport receives is partly based on how many medals it is likely to bring home – a clear self-fulfilling prophecy. Again, during the pandemic, the contrast has been notable: £16m was given to rugby league to protect the sport, but the government firmly rejected a £1m bailout of the British Basketball League.
“It doesn’t allow the basketball community to grow,” says Zell Francis, who, at 26, has been playing for a decade. “It keeps it small. You want to win medals as a country but there are people out there who haven’t even been recognised, because the facilities aren’t there. The country is missing out on superstars.”
The borough of Lewisham, where London Thunder is based, is the second largest inner-London borough, where under-19s make up a quarter of the residents. One in four people are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, rising to 75% within the school population. Bucknall prides London Thunder on its inclusivity. “There is a common goal, so people work together. That’s good for society.”
There are signs that the sport is gradually gaining recognition. Basketball England was recently awarded an additional £150,000 from Sport England as part of the Tackling Inequalities Funding, due to its ability to engage with demographics that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19: black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, plus those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and people with disabilities.
Spending time at London Thunder reveals that success is far broader than the glittering allure of medals and global travel. As 23-year-old Sealy puts it: “It will never be about what goes on between the lines. It’s so much bigger than that.”
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