Welcome to Edition Nine of The Post Up. In this edition, Cameron Hildreth unveils his plan to conquer America and leave Scorched earth.
Shequila Joseph talks through her toughest days that led onto a varied life on the road. Neal Meyer gives us his observations on the British absence from the NBA. Sian Phillips recounts her double-double explosion while Toni Minichiello gives us his view on how the funding system is still stacked against British basketball.
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Hildreth - “The dream is to play at the highest level”
Before Cameron Hildreth can think about picking up a ball or taking his not-inconsiderable young talent into twice-weekly excursions in the British Basketball League, he has demands on his schedule familiar to most 18-year-olds in the UK.
“I’m training every day, getting extra reps up, but trying to balance schoolwork as well,” Surrey Scorchers’ wunderkind outlines. Triple sport is his holistic subject of choice. Like most British teens, learning during Covid has involved precious little time in school itself.
“At the moment is online, especially if I'm training everyday with these guys.” Possibly a small perk of the pandemic, if such things truly exist.
Wriggling clear of the restrictions, the Great Hope of UK hoops is making the most of the liberties presented, many afforded as a consequence of his mid-season move from Worthing Thunder to Surrey, and all the additional opportunities that offered.
Due to depart for North Carolina on June 1, his impending scholarship to Wake Forest University renders him an amateur among professionals. Not, however, a boy amongst men with Hildreth’s muscular frame, speed and quickfire decision-making abilities providing him within a seamless transition into the BBL.
“I'm really enjoying it,” he proclaims. “I think it's a great step for me from Division One. Being able to train with these guys every week, every day, it’s been really good for me, for my preparation to get to Wake.”
Eight points, four rebounds and a couple of assists in 20 minutes per are just the cherry on top of extra shooting drills and the assorted learnings in the gym in Guildford.
“He works incredibly hard,” his team-mate Tayo Ogedengbe confides. A necessary component in the plan, Hildreth adds.
“I wanted to just play against better players every day? You know, learning at a faster pace. Just working hard, just making sure I can improve in every aspect of the game and learn new things from more experienced people that have already been where I'm going to go.”
There are aspects to work on, certainly. He has converted a mere four of his 28 three-point attempts, many taken in haste although with admirable self-confidence. Free throws, readily earned, have sagged. Relentless at getting into the lane, Wake will be an ideal spot to raise his jumper to the rafters.
He can, and will, lean on his father Danny, now 44, and a wise veteran of the domestic scene, from his own BBL days at myriad clubs, Derby, Brighton and Ware included.
Regularly a coach to his son since he first entered the club ranks aged 13, his careful nurturing saw his offspring showcase his wares to colleges by averaging over 20 points per contest in the NBL before he even snared his driving licence. That he shone in the Euroleague’s NextGen tournament helped attract multiple offers from America.
Throughout a recruitment process undertaken virtually rather than on campus, Danny was there to guide and advise.
“My dad, he's been around for so many years through basketball,” his son relates.
“And you know, he's definitely had an influence on me playing basketball. He's probably the main reason I am who I am today.
“Because of the coaching advice has been given me and the way he's been training me through the years. He's definitely been a big impact on my career.”
Their collusion separated Wake from the pack of suitors. The Demon Deacons will look to their British signing to radically improve a team which has slumped since past glories enjoyed when the likes of Tim Duncan and Chris Paul passed through their doors.
With a 6-16 record in an abbreviated season, and a speedy exit from the ACC Tournament last month, expectations upon the freshman and his new colleagues will be limited as a consequence. But, adds Ogedengbe, “the one thing you see with Cam is he absolutely hates to lose.”
No matter how Wake accelerates, Hildreth knows that back home, all eyes will be on him – just as they have been since he promoted himself into the BBL.
“I try not to be fazed by it. I just come here and play my game. trust myself. All the talk that people say about pressure and stuff, I don't really get fazed by it.
“The opportunity that I'm about to go to is unbelievable. It makes me speechless. The opportunity the coaches have given me, to be able to go play in the best league, the ACC, going against the best teams in college basketball, it is going to be great for me.
“And I can't wait to get out there.”
He feels ready. Prepared. Aiming high.
“The dream is to play at the highest level,” he underlines. “So the dream has always been to go to college in America and get to the NBA.”
More than anything, I want basketball to be my job, Hildreth adds. But it has been a decade since the UK sent anyone to the NBA. A nation expects. No pressure.
“I'm definitely humbled by it,” he smiles. “A lot of people are with me on this one, rooting for me, and I appreciate everyone out there.
“But yeah, it would be exciting if I could be the next one.”
From the craziness, Shequila follows her path
Even in the womb, Shequila Joseph was surely destined to be gently nudged towards an association of basketball.
On top of having an elder sister, Kashmere, who took the family lead in the game, the flag waving her in that direction was … in the name, right?
“I think it's quite ironic,” she laughs. “The funny thing is, my parents wanted a boy. So my name was initially supposed to be Shaquille.
“And then, when I was a girl, my dad thought Shequila, rather than Shaquille, was a better idea.”
His own Big Aristotle moment. Lawrence Joseph deeply loved watching his daughters hoop. He was forever encouraging of their dreams.
Surely, he would be proud of how the former Baby Sheq has become a Great Britain international at the age of 26 – courtesy of her senior debut earlier this year – and a true globetrotter as her professional career continues to pick up speed this season at Spanish Liga Femenina 2 side, Leganes.
Nine years ago however, Joseph saw him slip away amid a few days of extreme highs and painful lows.
In North Macedonia for the 2012 European Under-18 Championships, she averaged 15 points and five rebounds per game as England steamrolled to a final against Belarus.
“So we had been promoted,” she recalls. “So that was a great thing. And now we have the final that same day.”
That Sunday morning, her phone rang.
“My mother called me and told me that my father was ill. The team and everyone was very supportive and gave me the option of going home.
“And in my head, I said, ‘I know my father would not want me to leave this final - to play this game, and then come back, and then worry about these things. ‘So I actually managed to play the game.”
She knocked down 22 points as the English side – also including prodigious prospect like Cheridene Green, Janice Monakana and Mollie Campbell - were denied by a mere two points.
“I came home and he was still alive. So that was, I think, one of the craziest moments in my life. But I think everything happens for a reason.”
Already unconscious, Lawrence never did get to see the precious silver medal. At a critical time in the life of any young woman, she lent on her mother Marcia and her own resolve.
“It definitely was a struggle,” she confides. Already she was due to fly across the Atlantic for recruiting visits in the hope of finding a collegiate landing spot that suited her best. The trips were swiftly cancelled. Priorities, at home.
His advice in the process was missed. But not absent. Despite a natural temptation to remain in London, the burgeoning forward vowed to advance her ambition to try her luck in the NCAA.
“It was always in my head that I was going to college in from a young age,” she says. “I didn't actually want to go. And my dad was telling me: ‘yeah, you're definitely going to go to college, you're definitely going to play.’
“So I knew that was going to be my goal in life - to get to college.”
From the Haringey Angels to Ole Miss, she heeded his steer. “I just felt at home,” she declares. “It was probably the most beautiful campus I've ever seen.”
An interesting landing spot for her degree in Exercise Science. Freshman year was a challenge, she concedes. Finding the right balance between student and athlete.
The education continued. Working on her game, especially her shooting range. Getting a sense, too, of the nuances of the history of the Deep South and its resonance, even today.
“It just opened my eyes more, I think,” Joseph confirms. “Witnessing things going on, you know, team-mates kneeling for before games.”
Mississippi set her up for coming home to Europe. Her college stats did not bring offers flowing, she admits. Her rookie season as a pro was so nearly stillborn before a team in the second division in Italy – Fassino Albino - threw her a shot.
She jumped in, at the deep end.
“I didn't know what to expect, coming from college, where you get everything given to you, handed to you. And then you come overseas, and it's like, okay, you're by yourself, you have to do all these things alone.
“For example, I was the only foreign player on team. So everyone else is Italian.
“That was the struggle, not speaking the language, not being able to understand what they're saying. And also the coach, not speaking English is a struggle.”
Still, she averaged a double-double. Then scored a year in Iceland with Skallagrimur and then elevation into Germany’s top tier with Keltern before moving onto Spain.
Presently based near Madrid, the campaign of coronavirus has brought unimaginable challenges. Protocols, forms, the works.
“It's pretty hard now to just get in the gym. It literally is you go in a minute before practice. You get your temperature measured. And then once practice is done, you have to leave, so it's tough.
“This has been a hard season to just work on the things that I want to work on. Specifically, just coming into the gym to shoot, just grab shots repetitively. It's hard.”
Nevertheless, Leganes have ridden the restrictions and her talents to top their regionalised division, missing out on an unbeaten regular season with one frustrating loss in their very last game.
As a consequence, Joseph’s side face a three-team round-robin playoff next weekend, where the winner gets promoted into Spain’s top tier.
Should that be accomplished, she will hope to stick around.
Remaining part of the rejuvenation of the GB squad would be nice too. Perhaps representing England at next summer’s Commonwealth Games or the UK at the Paris 2024 Olympics as one of the few top-level players with international 3x3 experience at her disposal.
“I’m probably going to play as long as I can,” Joseph forecasts. “It's like you're in the real world. But you’ve still got a small bit of college in this.
“You have your house. You have your job. It is done. And I'm doing something I enjoy.”
Shequila Joseph is the guest on next week’s edition of the MVP Cast. To ensure you never miss an edition, subscribe at your preferred podcast provider.
Fans first, then – maybe - a path to the NBA
Over a decade has passed since Neal Meyer landed in the UK and placed both feet onto pastures unknown.
A few more grey hairs, he laments, from his previous tenures as an assistant coach during NBA stops with Portland, the LA Clippers, Cleveland and Denver.
He took a pivot, outside the zone, into the post of basketball operations at the NBA’s London office with a remit to develop the game in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
A job to make of what you will, from overseeing a Jr. NBA/WNBA programme that has rolled out to kids to managing outreach of various forms to … anything else that fits.
A soft sale, of course, for the leagues’ bid to combat the global supremacy of the Premier League and football. Business, 24/7.
The by-product is profitable too, Meyer underlines.
“For us, it's really working to grow the game globally and get more boys and girls participating,” he says. “Obviously that can lead to future fans of the NBA and things of that nature.
“But it also allows us to work with the local federations and help them grow their basketball in their countries. Help them get more boys and girls participating and playing basketball.
“At the same time, sports can bring so much more. It brings fitness, it can bring mental health, it can learn values, it can teach you how to work as a team. So it does a lot of other things.
“But from the NBA's perspective, obviously we want to become the largest sport in the world. And by doing that, and getting more kids globally playing basketball, it is only going to help us reach that goal.”
It can be argued that attracting the youth of the United Kingdom to hoops has, in recent times, be the least of the problems.
Converting them into devotees – and significantly to world-class exponents of the sport – has been a challenge which has puzzled many and been truly solved by none.
“There was hope for a lot of growth after the Olympics,” notes Meyer. “Funding has always been an issue. And with football being the number one sport here, it makes it difficult.
“From a cultural perspective, I think funding is part of it but there's other pieces. Unlike in the USA or certain countries like Lithuania, parents grew up playing football or following football.
“They're more likely to take their child out to kick a football versus taking them out to play basketball.
“In the US, obviously, there's American football, there's baseball and basketball. But, most kids going through elementary school and through high school probably played some form of basketball.
“So then, it's a little easier for those parents to go out and take their kids to shoot hoops versus to kick a ball, because they're comfortable with it.”
That, he hopes, is where Jr. NBA can kick down a few doors, using the leverage of the brand – and the various grassroots strategies of the four home nations – to hook them early and keep them for life.
Later, those of a high standard may head to college across the Atlantic. The UK sends its brightest and best in droves, reportedly on scholarships in greater numbers than any other European nation.
And yet not since Joel Freeland decamped to the Trail Blazers following London 2012 have we despatched anyone to the NBA. Not since Luol Deng took his leave in 2019 has anyone with puncher’s chance of representing GB been in the biggest league of them all.
None immediately on the horizon either. At a time when Spain, France and Germany are shipping them in trucks.
Meyer, a more than interested observer, sees some flaws at close hand in his adopted homeland.
“It's a combination of things,” he argues. “One is for those talented kids to find that pathway to get there and the support to get there. Whether, if they're talented enough,, even bypassing the university and maybe going into Europe to play and develop.
“But it's hard to say exactly why. Because there are pools of talent here. One thought in my mind is the possibility of these kids - versus the US or another country - start a little later in the UK.
“It's harder to get access to facilities and be able to play every day. It's not cheap, especially if you don't have access to a gym.
“And it’s hard getting into one of the good basketball pockets, where there's good coaching and good development, that will allow you to grow and have those coaches who can help push you - whether it's to Europe or the university in the US.”
Hothousing coaches for the NBA, as an alternative, has been something the UK has done rather well. Nick Nurse, Chris Finch as heads of the bench in Toronto and Minnesota. Fab Flournoy and Phil Handy, with the Raptors and Lakers, as assistants who were prolific in the BBL.
Meyer has been the export in the opposite direction. Passing on insights gained coaching and analysis work under the likes of Gregg Popovich, Mike Dunleavy and Mike Brown.
His role has been him assist Pau Gasol at his youth camp in Spain in addition to a key role in the Basketball Without Borders initiatives.
A collegian at the University of San Diego, he came through the rite of passage of summer camps that honed skills and impressionable minds.
Another block, perhaps, missing in the foundations of British basketball?
“Luol (Deng) and his foundation and his camp, they do a good job of bringing the top talent together,” Meyer maintains.
“I know the (home nations) work from the national team level and the youth level to get the top talent.
“In the USA, I was fortunate enough to play in college and I was fortunate to be invited to some top camps in the US when I was in high school.
“What that allows you to see is the other best talent in the country and to be able to compete against them.
“From a gauging perspective, you see where you fit in that group, see how much work you have to do to continue to elevate to that level.
“And then also it's important to be coached by different coaches, right? To have the exposure to different coaches with different mindsets and philosophies.
“And to play on different teams. Because as youth players, or players in general, even at the NBA level, if you're in a system that doesn't fit your game or your style, it's going to be tough to succeed, right?
“So players having the ability to experience all those different aspects, and gauge where they are, and what they have to work on and develop to strive to that level … I think as a player you have to set goals and measure those goals whether it's on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis to see how you've improved.
“And if you have improved.”
Neal Meyer was speaking as part of the 'Jr. NBA Stay Active – Online' programme, a series of virtual development sessions for youth across the UK, launched in collaboration with Basketball England, Basketball Wales and Basketball Scotland via OWQLO.
With Pride, Sian doubling
Sian Phillips will not be dazzled by the numbers that have made her one of the country’s most highly-touted female basketball prospects.
All the more impressive however, given that the 20-year-old centre didn’t receive even a snort of interest from American college recruiters when the moment came for her to decide on her pathway outta school.
The United States’ loss has been Caledonia Pride’s gain.
The Great Britain Under-20 international is content with her lot as a student-athlete at the University of Edinburgh.
A late bloomer, staying at home does not feel like an opportunity lost.
“I didn’t get any offers,” she reveals.
“I thought about it and spoke to people but nothing came of it. I was always really happy to stay here, especially because of the standard of Edinburgh University and the training and the coaches here.
“The level of the WBBL as well. When I was younger, playing against players in the league who were much better than me elevated my level. So I made the decision to stay and that suits me.”
Amid the struggles of the Edinburgh outfit, Phillips has stood tall, with a monster 28 points and 23 rebounds against Newcastle in February, with double-doubles in six of her 12 WBBL appearances this term among a string of credits to her name.
These are rare excursions for one so young, in a position where so many rivals have planted their imports.
Statistics, she declares, are the product, not the ambition.
“I don’t really think about them during the game. Not until afterwards. Because you’re focused on all the little things. I was quite surprised to get a 20 and 20 but it was nice to see it as a reward for all the hard work.
“It’s just been good having the team having confidence in me and the coaches as well. We’ve been training really hard so putting all that into practice gives me confidence as well.”
The struggling Scots, who sit second bottom of the WBBL, received a welcome lift this week with head coach Bart Sengers adding to the Pride’s enlarged roster with the arrival of his first-born daughter.
The Dutchman likes his youthful crop. Even in waving Hannah Robb off to Leicester last summer, there was pride (no pun intended) in witnessing her pick up a first Great Britain cap.
Could Phillips be the next Caledonian export into the national team?
“Obviously, I feel like I’m off the senior level at the moment,” she underlines.
“But there are other girls in the WBBL in that GB team and I try to match their level when I play against them.”
Fund talent, says Toni Minichiello, but “there’s no absolute right to make that leap.”
Successive regimes at UK Athletics have had their ears bent and their strategies debunked by Toni Minichiello. A reputation built on coaching Jessica Ennis to Olympic and world heptathlon gold has afforded the Yorkshireman enough capital to shovel away any spin from his former employer and call a spade exactly what it is.
An acerbic observer of track and field’s internal squabbles and the bureaucratic machinations within, those candid critiques have made the 55-year-old a useful addition to the BBC’s commentary team. Of the sport, but willing to stand apart and call the action without filter.
And yet now the outsider has willingly leapt inside the fold once again. To be moaned at, and about, rather than the plaintiff, as the new chair of the British Basketball Federation. An unpaid but burdensome role, with six predecessors within the past nine years suggesting it brings as much irritation as reward.
Minichiello, still with a cluster of athletes to nurture, was asked initially to lend his performance expertise to an organisation that has toiled to stay afloat since its expulsion from the Lottery funded list. This, he insists, is a passion project, which is why he is prepared to hold feet up to the fire.
“When I started coaching, I was coaching basketball,” he reveals. “I've coached Yorkshire age group teams, team managed that, coached in the Sheffield League. So the opportunity to step on board and support was really appealing.
“Now you don't know what you're walking into until you walk into it really.” He details the precarious financial position and a patchwork structure that begs England, Scotland and Wales to buy in but without ties that properly bind.
Nothing, in the cause of holistically addressing lingering tensions and making the sport knit together, should be off the table, he advances.
“I’m a great believer in Einstein’s definition of insanity: where you keep doing the same things you’ve always done and expect different results. You need to have everyone in a room thrashing the issues out.
“It’s like the seven-step treatment programme. Step One is admitting you’ve got a problem. And then figuring out how you can be part of a solution. I’ve done that in track and field. I’ve known when I’ve been part of problems but then tried to solve them.”
The frustration of politics. Familiar terrain.
That UK Sport will provide £1.34 million leading up to the Paris 2024 Olympics has sealed some of the fissures. Ample cracks, he says, remain. But, he declares: “I wouldn't walk away from it now, that would be irresponsible.”
Minichiello was not born for diplomacy. Perhaps it is a definitive strength for a coach, to provide assessments coated in undiluted honesty. Ennis was of a generation where the stakes diverted from Saturday’s Lotto jackpot financed world-class support on a plate.
Easy money, he admits. But where it runs freely, he has seen how simple it is to fritter away.
You should, he argues, “decide what is a must-have and what is a nice to have: categorise stuff and negotiate on it.” What is not affordable is off the table. “You’ve got to work within your budgets. And I think, too often, a lot of governing bodies - and certainly it is the case in athletics - they go for bells and whistles, and waste a lot of money.”
Basketball was guilty of that too in the unrestrained era of 2012. A bygone era. Great Britain’s men recently qualified for next year’s European finals while the women, last year, were one win away from qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. Each were habitually scrambling to find enough budget to finance each subsequent international window.
Because theirs are expensive pursuits. Along with football, tennis and golf, the slam dunkers sit apart in the millionaires row of any athlete village. “Those three generate money to bankroll their costs - we don’t,” laments Minichiello. “If you’re insuring an NBA player to represent GB, that’s a lot of money.”
The funding dice, he believes, remains unnecessarily loaded. Basketball has repeatedly staked its case for help on attracting high participation numbers, especially from within the black community. The raw data, in truth, is less compelling when compared with successful nations like Spain and France. However, asks Minichiello, what has that really got to do with how much help any sport actually needs, from top to bottom?
“There is a falsehood from UK Sport and the sports councils that there is a direct connection between what happens in the grassroots and the elite. That having more players translates into pathways to the top.
“As someone who influenced a nine-year-old all the way to damehood, I’ve seen that transition from junior to senior and it’s littered with bumps. There’s no alignment. You need opportunity. You need good parenting. You need the right support. There’s no absolute right to make that leap.”
Whatever funding is available should go where it is needed most, he argues. The landscape has evolved. Why not the strategy too for government cash?
“You look at how money from people like Sport England is allocated. They want sports to get kids more active and part of that is being more visible.
“So should you allow governing bodies to spend money on buying time on TV or streaming platforms, especially when they’re competing against the behemoth that is football? That might be a preposterous idea. But we have to look at it.”
These are statements not designed to court favour. Minichiello, overlooked last year to become UK Athletics’ Olympic head coach, is all too aware that he is seen as a paid-up member of the sporting awkward squad.
From that comes a certain liberation to fight his corner as he best sees fit. “UK Sport are now saying it’s not about medals at all costs or no compromise,” he underlines. “It’s about inspiring a nation. So let them prove it.”
An abridged version of this previously appeared in The i.
Rocks plot a rebuild
Glasgow Rocks player-coach Gareth Murray will be given a bigger budget next season – and strict orders to dig the club out of the BBL basement.
The Scots have suffered a dramatic slump from leading the league when Covid struck 12 months ago to sitting rock bottom of the standings this term.
Losing to closest rivals Surrey Scorchers last weekend and Newcastle Eagles on Friday have been compounded by the abrupt departure due to visa issues of Christan Keeling and Ron Delph.
It further shortens the odds on Murray marking his first year at the helm by finishing dead last. But Rocks owner Duncan Smillie insists the Great Britain legend is going nowhere and will be backed with the finances to turn things around.
“We’ve spoken about next season. There is still a massive level of uncertainty. We’re a club where almost 100 per cent of our income comes from selling tickets. We still don’t know for certain if we’ll have fans back by then, and how many.
“But Gareth will be player-coach again and he’ll have a budget more in line than previous years. We must be more competitive. We haven’t been this season and we need to recruit better.”
Challenging for a title again as they did last season will be difficult, Smillie concedes, with the multi-million pound investment that has come with foreign takeovers of London Lions and Plymouth Raiders and the disruption it has brought to the domestic player market.
“You saw when London came up to play us, they chartered a plane,” he said. “They have crazy money, as do Plymouth. You also have Newcastle and Leicester who have access to their own arenas and the income that generates. But there are six other clubs out there and we should be competitive with everyone else.”
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Images: Ahmedphotos, NBA, Rocks/Daniel Odoom