Welcome to the fifth edition of MVP’s regular newsletter, The Post Up.
In this issue, we have an exclusive interview with Andrew Lawrence on his timetable for a return from injury and his post-career ambitions. We explore the purpose of the WBBL and how it can nurture our brightest and best. We hear why NBA castoffs could find the BBL an ideal fit and assess the latest expansion possibility for the league.
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Andrew Lawrence is not – by any means - done yet
The return may come in time for the conclusion of this much-disrupted season.
But there is always the chance it may not, Andrew Lawrence recognises.
“I hope so,” the Plymouth Raiders guard declares. “It’s been frustrating to not be playing, especially as I feel this team is set up for me.”
The 30-year-old was brought in last summer to lend wisdom to a reshaped and upgraded roster in Devon. To lend the experience accumulated over a decade at a high level, from featuring for Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympics, to stops in fortified leagues in Spain, France and Italy.
The campaign before, he was left marooned when London City Royals imploded. A deal was awaiting to take him back to the Italian League when Covid blew up the world.
Then, as he jogged down the court ahead of the start of this delayed domestic term, his hamstring decided to violently splinter apart.
“It was a rupture of the tendon,” he confirms. “So it was quite severe. But I had a really good surgeon, the same surgeon that Harry Kane had. So I did see the very best in the country in which was good.
“I feel really good after. My legs are strong. It's just building up to the point where I'm able to do and get back to being myself again.”
12 months without practicing his craft in a competitive sphere has been testing, no matter the pandemic. “I can’t even put into words how much I’ve missed it,” he proclaims.
Yet it has helped to have remained in close proximity to his colleagues, he says, rather than completing his rehab back at home in London and merely being a ghost within the squad, watching only from afar.
Blessed with a fine basketball IQ surely inherited from his father Renaldo, Lawrence has always been an erudite and thoughtful interviewee from a young age. Being the young pup on an Olympic team in the glare of that spotlight never seemed to faze him one jot.
Which is why his presence in Plymouth’s ranks has still brought some dividends, if not the ones anticipated on his arrival. He remains an absentee from the box score but repays his wage with valued input to Paul James and his coaching staff.
A thought here. A word there. “It is limited in what I can do,” he outlines. “But I do try and help where I can. Especially with the other players and just telling them what I see and things of that nature.
“But I mean, we've got a really good group. And they've got a lot of veterans like Ashley and people that they can lean on as well.”
And still, it is natural that, having entered his fourth decade last June, he is peeking over the horizon to when his patched-up body no longer sustains a life on the court.
Lawrence’s clutch of punditry appearances on Sky Sports this season have been astute and polished. No huge surprise. “It would be a very cool thing to potentially transition into,” he says.
Coaching perhaps is an option. Maybe an executive role would fit him like a glove.
“Moving forward, I would definitely be exploring avenues,” he affirms. “When I say I’d be interested in coaching, I don't if a head coach or professional coach would be necessarily my idea. More the community stuff.
“And I think being a general manager would be interesting to me. I think that sort of behind the scenes role does definitely appeal.”
Just not yet. The daily grind and sweat continues, in the gym, on the floor with light practices. All in the hope of lacing up shoes and slotting dimes come the spring.
He has gas left in the tank and a desire to roam free.
“My focus is definitely to come back,” he adds. “I still think have got a lot of years playing this game, whether that's in England, or whether it's abroad, I do definitely see myself with multiple years playing and getting back to a high level - if not even higher in terms of the standard that I can play at.
“I’m thoroughly confident that they're going to put me in the best position to be back. As with all things, you always have different avenues and things that you're thinking of after basketball, as well as coinciding with it in the future.
“But I've got a few avenues that I'm currently pursuing as to what I would do either towards the end of my career, or when it is completely finished.”
Between now and then, he’d like some trophies. And to add to his list of Great Britain caps and major tournament appearances.
One reason – if any were needed – that he will be glued to the streams on Saturday and Monday evening to see if GB can reach EuroBasket 2022. Qualification for the finals, via pivotal games with Germany and France - would only inflate the incentive to reprise his career and his prime.
The Londoner has had to get used to the role of spectator this term. Thankfully, his passion has remained undimmed.
“I'll be watching keenly, as I have for every game,” he underlines.
“A lot of them are my friends. I don't know some of the newer, younger guys but a lot of the older guys are friends from multiple years.
“So I’m definitely hoping they do well. Obviously I always take great pride in playing for GB and supporting GB. And I expect us to be at that EuroBasket.
“I expect the guys to go and give a good performance. So I'll be watching keenly this weekend, and I'm sure they can get back and get it done.”
How to turn the WBBL into a pipeline
A philosophical question.
What is the Women’s British Basketball League for?
The premise, harking back to its inception six years ago, was to raise the standard of the female game in this country, to better promote it, to perhaps monetise it, but principally to give the pathway a good shake and make it fit for purpose.
How’s that working out so far?
Well, in the most recent Great Britain line-up, the dozen which lost to Belarus to consequently miss out on EuroBasket 2021, only Hannah Robb emerged through the domestic pathway – now at Leicester, following a good grounding at Caledonia.
And in seeking out lessons from abroad to ameliorate the pyramid in the UK, then perhaps it is time to be even more radical, Newcastle Eagles head coach Chris Bunten declares.
“If you look across leagues in Europe, like Romania, some of their Under-20s will get paid higher than import players because you have to have a Under-20 home-grown player on the court for the first half,” he asserts.
“It’s a fantastic idea which would only develop their country and they’ve done a lot better in the women’s game in terms of European Championships.
“I quite like that idea. It’s not about the (WBBL). Andy Webb and Jamie Press are heavily involved in the organisation but they just sit there. It’s the franchises who make a push for what we should be doing or be driving.
“Unfortunately every team has their own ideas about what that looks like, what their goals are and why they’re in the league.
“For me personally, speaking solely for myself, I want to be a commercial league because we want it to grow, we want players to get paid and have housing, to have cars. Some clubs may offer that, some don’t.
“But want to attract the best players. And if you have those British players, you’re only going to get better.
“Should we say you should have one homegrown player on the court at all times? Maybe. It’s not something I’d support right now because my team would probably be weakened.
“But is it good for the game? Most definitely.”
The simple issue, the naysayers will cry, is a lack of cash. While the governing bodies of other sports acquire the resources to offer decent contracts to homespun talents that are well above the living wage, basketball simply scrapes by.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of political influence or commercial graft. But when a minor sport like netball can dish out full-time deals to dozens of players and hoops twiddles its thumbs, it’s another reason to question the strategy and operation that sits above.
In the meantime, says Bunton, the model has been sharpened by Leicester Riders’ move to provide Holly Winterburn with a package upon her return from the USA. A stipend. A scholarship to Loughborough University.
And as a professional a set-up as the WBBL can offer.
“That’s one route,” he underlines. “What I think should happen is - however GB Basketball or Basketball England can do it - there should be funding for the top 12 young players, men and women, at Under-18 level.
“So you can say to them, if you stay in this country, you get X amount of money and you can use that however you want to: living, accommodation, whatever.
“And choose a university that betters you as a basketball player. So for women, it might be Leicester or Edinburgh or Cardiff. You have an opportunity to get an education and be in a pathway where you can develop.”
However it is also about nurturing the WBBL’s potential to become self-sustaining in due course.
Perhaps not at the level of the uber-leagues in Spain or France (in truth, they are driven by local authorities with spare budgets for sport of the like the UK will probably never see) but sufficient to offer an alternative to a decent graduate job for those with the talent and desire to want to make hoops their initial career.
Creating value is paramount. Not just a grumble for the female game, of course. Great Britain’s men go for glory and a EuroBasket place this weekend.
The social media outcry when British Basketball confirmed that it would require the payment of £8.49 for a streaming pass to tune in - rather than watching for free - outlined an issue bemoaned by many: the culture of getting something for nothing.
To be eradicated, Bunten hopes, from the WBBL.
“The Eagles do a very good job of saying you should pay for it, like you wouldn’t expect to walk into a men’s game for free.
“The amount of texts I’ve had from opposing teams saying: ‘can you send me a code for the game?’ I believe it’s £2.99 to watch us online. If you really want to watch us you’ll pay.
“We’ve had discussions at a club level saying, if you want to put a value on it, then start charging for it. Someone might go: ‘that’ll reduce the amount of people watching.’ That’s fine. They wouldn’t watch it anyway.
“If we want to commercialise this league, we have to go – regardless of how much they’re getting paid – the players play really good basketball and they deserve to be put on that same level.
“We need to put a price on it rather than belittling ourselves. ”
Chris Bunten appears on a forthcoming edition of the MVP Cast. To make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast via your preferred provider.
The NBA’s escape hatch: the BBL?
The BBL can become the new favoured destination for basketballing journeymen who have dropped off the NBA’s map but still want a decent payday – or a shot at redemption.
That’s the assertion of London Lions’ head coach Vince Macaulay whose expanded roster this season has included two former signees into the Association in DeAndre Liggins and the departed Byron Mullens.
It is not entirely unusual for players to drop from the NBA onto a British court. Over the years, the BBL – and its predecessor – has offered a sanctuary to those who have slipped through its net.
From Brits like Steve Bucknall to John Amaechi (incidentally, one of the few to go from the BBL to the NBA), to fallen idols such as Richard Dumas (booted from the NBA for drugs use, stopping at the Derby Storm), reclamation projects of the ilk of Loren Meyer, a first round pick of Dallas in 1995 who had a truly productive campaign with the Chester Jets a mere five years later, picking up the BBL Trophy.
Plus Dennis Rodman, in a wild and untamed category of his own.
And yet, in recent times, the domestic league’s salary cap of £250,000 – which, with various UK player exemptions, still translates to a top wage of around £60,000 – has generally prohibited the recruitment of NBA castoffs who can earn much more in dozens of overseas locals.
With their wealthy backers, the Lions are set to enter that hiring market on a regular basis, signals Macaulay.
“We want the Lions to play at the highest level of European basketball and be a place for top talent to come a play as a step into or down from the NBA.
“If you look at the drafts over the past ten years, and at the players who didn’t make the top 20 or 30 picks, how much worse are they than the players drafted in the first round? These players' talents are almost wasted, as they simply don’t get enough minutes on the court to really showcase their game, so could they be better off playing abroad?
“These are the types of players that would be a great addition to the league and playing here would give them the experience needed to go onto play at the top level. The BBL provides a great level of basketball where players can work on their game and the skills required to compete in the NBA, for when they do finally make that transition.”
A Knight’s Tale
Who’d have thought that Gloucester could have leapt into the list of cities hoping to land a BBL franchise in the not-so-distant future?
Stranger things, etc.
It’s an idea being floated by the co-chair of National League North football team, Gloucester City AFC, who has taken a 50 per cent share in the city’s NBL Division Three South West club.
What synergy a sixth-division soccer side known as the Tigers with a fourth-tier hoops outfit now called the Knights? According to Alex Petheram, there is the potential to construct a purpose-built arena adjacent to their existing stadium which could stage events as well as professional basketball.
The model, he says, is Bristol Flyers with their synergy from a joint ownership with their neighbouring football and rugby side. Hence, the Tigers and Knights will now sport the same colours, and share some facilities.
“I was involved with Plymouth Raiders around a decade ago and we moved up from National League One to the BBL,” he told Gloucestershire Live.
“With the additional investment here, the target will be to win the league and start moving up the levels.”
The only sticking point? The proposed area is 49.5 miles by road from Bristol’s planned new home, adjacent to Ashton Gate and a mere 29.5 miles from the University of Worcester Arena.
Given that BBL franchises, latterly running at about £150,000 in joining fees up front, come with a protected geographic area as part of the package, the hurdles for a new entrant in the region seem huge – especially with the decent prospect of restoring a top-flight outfit in Birmingham during the decade ahead.
Complications await WBBL in foreign puzzle
The WBBL is edging towards a quota of three imports next season, whether Americans, mainland Europeans or those from somewhere more exotic.
Provisionally approved by the clubs on a 7-4 majority, the switch will allow wealthier teams to strengthen with the aim of creating a more competitive league, providing the individual they wish to sign meets Home Office rules.
There is an interesting rub on top, however.
MVP has learnt that the definitions involved are somewhat unique, with two further spots made available for foreigners who have a right to remain in the UK, without applying for a basketball-specific work permit.
And, amid the quirks of the changes, a British passport might not be enough to avoid being placed within an ‘import’ designation.
The definition of an ‘overseas’ player, it is understood, is set to incorporate even those UK nationals (of which many will have dual nationality) who have come through the junior development system of another country – AND who have not yet played for the Great Britain team.
So the likes of Sam Roscoe, now at Manchester Mystics but the holder of a single GB cap from last autumn, would have counted as a foreigner at the outset of the current campaign, under the outline rules.
And thus, from recent GB squads, the likes of Rachael Vanderwal, Karlie Samuelson, Kristine Anigwe, Roscoe ... and record cap holder and current Cardiff coach, Stef Collins, would have been barred from coming into the WBBL as a domestic acquisition, despite their UK passport.
A policy which surely, in the hands of the right lawyer, would be ripe for challenge under Restraint of Trade legislation.
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