Welcome to Edition Eight of MVP’s regular newsletter, The Post Up.
Ryan Richards gives us an exclusive peek inside his travelogue on a journey that’s unique and beyond compare. We venture behind the camera on Sky Sports’ coverage of the BBL by talking to the man who has put the whole production together. And Robyn Lewis of Cardiff Archers takes us on a food tour.
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The stamp collector has another book to fill
Ryan Richards’ Roaring Twenties have spirited him around the world and around again.
Journeys from his backyard into basketball’s supposed backwaters, extraordinary trips into the unknown that became most excellent adventures, enough to fill a book and a few chapters more besides.
23 different clubs since he emerged from the junior ranks at Gran Canaria in Spain. 15 countries was my original count. He adds a few more, but admits: “I’d have to double-check.” It seems a lot in raw numbers, he acknowledges.
And yet: “A lot of people forget looking at it that in Asia a lot of leagues, they don't overlap. So you'll go somewhere from January. I played him back in Lebanon for two weeks for a Cup. And that's a stamp… Asia is kind of cool. Because you can go from January to April somewhere, and then you can go May to June, and you can go from June to October.”
It might be the road less travelled but it has set the Surrey Scorchers’ centre up for life, even before he reaches the landmark birthday of 30 next month with a wedding planned on the beaches of Mexico once Covid has taken its leave.
Earning a good crust is one of the points of a professional basketball career, of course. On the circuit of hooping globetrotters, Richards has panned for gold and accumulated a few bars in his personal vault.
And still, we have all surely taken our turn to evaluate Richards’ decade-and-a-bit with shades of light and shade, the second round draft pick of the San Antonio Spurs in 2010 not quite scaling the exciting heights that many predicted for him.
Or that he forecast of himself, ten years ago.
“You think you'll be in the NBA and be an All Star ... that didn't happen for me. But it's been amazing, it's been truly amazing.
“I've had a great career, seeing different cultures, , financially done very well, invested very smartly, and had a great career, I can't really complain.
“Where I thought I would be? I thought I would lead the NBA in scoring and I thought I would be an All Star, I did. I believed in myself.
“And I believed I was (Kristaps) Porzingis before Porzingis. This is how I will tell it to people. But it's been amazing. It's been amazing. It’s been really quick.
“I'm scared to think about the next ten but no, it's been great.”
All things are relative though.
Man got paid.
One of the most personable players you will ever meet, Kent’s Mr. Big has been the most thrilling of rides.
Forgotten in the time that has passed is that although Richards blew up his rep to A-Grade hype levels with his workouts, pre-Draft, he already required double shoulder surgery that was going to need months of rehab.
That held me in check, he underlines.
Plus the advice received, he recalls with what is a rare regret, was not always the soundest. The Spurs wanted to take him in the first round and then stash him back in Europe, a strategy to delay and then import which has paid them so many dividends over the years.
The initial response from the Englishman was a polite no. He fell and fell and although he was chosen, the door to the NBA was never held fully open to beckon him inside.
“I didn't have an agent or a support system,” he reveals. “So when I got drafted, the Spurs sent me back over to Europe and it didn't work out with the club.”
That was when his unique route map diverted off the usual course.
“I was getting these crazy offers. And for me, you know, I went against all odds and got drafted and was nearly a top 15 pick before the injury.
“So then I got an offer to go to Dubai - and no one's been to Dubai before - for silly money. I didn't know that it would upset people. But I was thinking about myself at the time. And then it just snowballs.”
Georgia, Bahrain, Lebanon, he talks now of an unplanned strategy to “hit” markets, not choosing leagues or climbing up the pyramid. I was never a fan of the EuroLeague, he admits. So every other option was in play, all judged on the merit of the job and the opportunity.
“Because if it’s not the NBA, I didn't care. I carried that throughout my career. So I followed the money. I went to the money rather than working my way up in certain leagues. I've no regrets. I’ve truly loved it.”
Russia, among the places he dropped anchor, was hardest, he concedes. So was North Macedonia, he adds. Rarely because of the people, he underlines. Just styles and conditions which were not to his liking. And occasionally the level of play.
Name the standout destination, I ask. He shows not a second’s hesitation or pause.
“Iran,” he declares. “Nothing like I expected. I got there and I asked how to say ‘pass the ball’ in Arabic. And got punched in the mouth instantly.
“Because in Persian, which I've learned to pick up pretty well from being there three years, the people are sensitive, and very manipulative. But I kind of liked how they play the game.
“You know, they're very passionate. We have a lot of things in common. Iran, great, great, great people. I ended up doing three years and a little bit. Making some great friends that will be at the wedding.”
From afar, the Spurs front office followed his progress. And then, with no real formality, they no longer did when his rights were finally waived in 2016.
Constant change does not a stellar CV make, no matter the profession. “It has affected me with many jobs,” he concedes.
As a teen, he proved himself among American contemporaries like Derrick Rose and Kevin Love in showcase games. They had the luxury of driving down a one-way street with no diversions. Richards, a total contrast.
No matter the utility of the Spurs pick of eleven years ago, head coach Gregg Popovich, amid their infrequent interactions, could not have been more supportive.
Draft night, Richards chuckles, was a conversation for the ages. “I'm in Chicago, a little bar,” he recounts. “I’m sitting at the bar and we say ‘listen, you know what, we're going to do a shot every pick.’”
The tab grows and grows. Not quite 49 drinks downed but “a tiny gallon,” he smiles.
Beginning to drown his sorrows as the list of names chosen grew and grew, he had nipped to the restroom when he heard the cheers outside. “Popovich calls me instantly,” he recaps. “He goes: ‘we love you, glad we got it done. We're excited. Get down here and we'll see you down on Thursday.”
Pop having a blether with the drunken young Brit. Quite the picture, indeed. “I was pretty messed up,” he chuckles. “It was pretty bad.”
To add to the cocktail of insanity that evening, his full profile had flashed up on the TV screens. The bar owner rapidly approached. ‘You’re 19 years old,’ he proclaimed. A little below the legal age in the state of Illinois. “We had to get out of there pretty quick,” he laughs.
And even if you want to make a judgement call on whether Richards’ career has been an unqualified success or a heroic failure, understand two things: He has had a whale of a time. And only his opinion truly counts.
If we’ve learnt one thing from Covid, it has been the value of the uplifting moments and the fantastic memories over repetition and boredom within the same four walls.
Sure, he could have squirreled away millions more. Be playing on a higher stage than his current post, as an off-the-bench sparkplug in the British Basketball League.
Had more caps for Great Britain and gone to an Olympics if not for a youthful strop that came out of the moment when he was cut by then-coach Chris Finch ahead of EuroBasket 2011.
Made the NBA by going to the G-League and biding his time. Or picking up megabucks in China.
Ifs and maybes.
Richards is perfectly OK with his lot, with an active role already established in helping a next generation via a programme he has helped to finance and craft at Kent Crusaders.
One thing he will offer them is wisdom and advice. Of the kind he lacked. Or possibly spurned due to trust issues accumulated as a child.
They spilled into his basketballing odysseys: wrong agents chosen, good ones let go, choices made with guidance from those who did not necessarily have his best interests foremost.
“A lot of these coaches and people, they think this is basketball - leave your problems at the door, handle your job, do your job. And that's true in the professional sense.
“But as a youth, a kid, you know you need help. And you need to take kids under your wing, you need to understand them, you need to know them.
“It’s all good screaming at a kid telling him to carry the balls or whatever, blah, blah, blah. You need to have discipline, you need to learn to do that.
“But, you know, it carries on, it carries on. If you're insecure, if you're a jealous person in a relationship with your closest partner, your closest person, what do you think you're going be like on the court and someone starts talking bad about you? Or someone's writing something on you on Twitter?
“You can't just turn it off because this is basketball.
“I struggled with that, with my childhood issues and my trust issues. My trust wasn’t broken because of a couple of agents or I got pissed around. No.
“It was tough.”
All golden now though. He can rarely have been more content, off the court at least.
His fiancée, presently in Chicago, will soon re-join him in the UK and progress her career in nursing in southwest England.
Let the Raiders rumours begin. “We're going to be based down that way,” he teases.
However he’d love a few more stamps in the passport. Japan tops the list should the NBA – as is likely - continue to ignore his hand in the air.
“The great thing,” he says, “about being 15 and playing professionally is you make a lot of contacts.
“So a lot of guys that were my team-mates now are coaches. So who knows? Maybe we'll end up somewhere sunny and nice and next year.
“But I'm happy. You know, I love playing at Surrey. I love the whole Scorchers situation. I love that we don't have any respect. I love that people count us out and people (say) we're not reaching the final. So that's fun. We told the boys.
“I like it here. I'm very, very happy in Surrey.”
The BBL might not be the NBA. Not even close.
But if a decade and more of sticking a pin in the map and packing his boots for another stop has confirmed anything, it’s that Richards will savour whatever lies in store and look forward, not back.
His Thirties, you sense, will be a splendid adventure all of their own.
Listen to the full interview with Ryan Richards in the next edition of the MVP Cast, sponsored by Total Environmental Compliance.
Reviving the BBL buzz
What, in the eyes of the man responsible for bringing us the British Basketball League on Sky Sports on (most) Friday evenings, are the ingredients that make compelling sporting television?
“Personalities,” Scott Melvin declares without hesitation. “Personalities.”
“Every sports show, certainly here, the high-profile ones, they've all got their own analysis tools and toys.
“But the more successful ones, certainly in America, are the ones which have the most popular, and most outspoken pundits.
“I wouldn't say we're catching up with them. I think we're already there. But I definitely think that the personality of the pundit is what makes the headlines.”
And Melvin should know, having spent several years overseeing the reincarnation of Sky’s highly-regarded Monday Night Football from its Richard Keys and Andy Gray era to the tech-heavy, analysis-expanded époque of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher.
DNA from which has been liberally injected into the rebirth of domestic hoops on the channels of his former employer, courtesy of Buzz16 Productions which he founded and co-owns.
Everything emerged through a casual chat, he reveals, with Newcastle Eagles supremo Paul Blake last summer. The BBL has been nomadic for years, popping up on ITV Digital, back to Sky, then through Setanta, Eurosport, Freesports and the BBC’s Red Button with supplementary showings via the likes of YouTube and Facebook and the now infamous BBLTV.
It has really been two decades since its weekend, 6pm, Sky Sports 3, slot represented a mark of broadcast stability. Melvin saw an opportunity to prise that door properly open once again with a reboot of the look and feel of the league.
Others were subsequently pitched an outline idea. “And thankfully, Sky were receptive,” he says. “But we knew the challenge was building up an audience that perhaps hadn't been there for a while.
“There was a strong core fan base of the BBL. Outside of that, I think if you stopped 100 people in the street and said ‘name me a British basketball player’, I think that they’d struggle.
“So that was the challenge: getting people to recognise that it was still there. And it is good quality. And there are personalities there. And they have got a local team.
“All these things were kind of the driving force behind that - getting people to recognise what was on their doorstep. Because I don't think they had up until this point.”
During the first term of a two-year deal, audience figures have been around 30,000 per game, industry sources suggest, comparable with similar sports on Sky and above the average figures of the NBA.
BBL – with a splash of the WBBL on top - fits in with Sky’s strategy to broaden its audience base beyond the football lover.
Melvin, a Glaswegian whose father was once the sports editor of the Aberdeen Press and Journal, used to oversee a property whose rights alone cost £5 million for every single match. There are eggs in more baskets now at the satellite behemoth.
In this lockdown era, there are more eyeballs readily available but less live content than before. The BBL has value, and it potentially might bring in a younger audience. Where exactly it slots into the broader portfolio has not yet been fully cemented but there is a willingness from Sky, he signals, to build a partnership for the longer term.
Constructing a crew from scratch during Covid to bring it to life had its complications.
Normally, there are meetings and screen tests to judge if chemistry comes together. “I met Nat Coombs for the first time face-to-face at 10 o'clock in the morning, the day of Newcastle versus London on our first show,” Melvin reveals of his presenter.
Credibility was one key must-have at the very outset. Which is why Kieron Achara was quickly brought on board. “I think Dan Routledge and Anthony Rowe were obvious,” he adds of his commentary crew.
“You know, they work together all the time. We knew that was a partnership that would work well on screen. That was kind of that was the easy one.
“Mike Tuck's done some punditry for Sky and some NBA. Drew Lasker has his podcast. So we knew these guys could talk. And we knew that they were good.
“But when you put people together for the first time, we've got no idea what's going to work and what's not going to work.”
Others inside the truck know their hoops, like Mick Brais, the redoubtable producer, who was a central part of the NBA on Sky Sports team during the Kevin Cadle era.
Creditably, the formula has hit the ground running, with a notable lack of cyber-crowing.
A work still in progress, Melvin cautions.
No doubt however, the up-front emphasis has shifted from tactics to characters in an attempt to suck in the unconverted. Slick and error-free, it feels like a big production even at a fraction of the cost of Sky’s prime assets. To its credit, it is no pale imitation of Inside the NBA or ESPN’s shows, merely a home-grown alternative.
Plus, an active social media side dish serves not just to big up the TV slot but to provide decent quality content to a league where – perhaps Bristol and Leicester apart – the Twitter / Insta game certainly needs to be raised.
Curiously, locking out fans has played into their hands, enabling producers to deploy some of the empty space with roving cameras that have offered a different view of the action.
Those will be unplugged from the mix once the seats fill up once again. “So we've almost got to start again in season two, which is a nice problem to have,” he concedes.
Then again, the protocols which limit access will also vanish. Opening up the possibilities for locker room filming, in-game reporting, and innovations as yet not fully formed.
“Because,” Melvin adds, “we get our piece of paper and say: ‘right, this is all the stuff that worked. This is all the stuff that didn't work. What do we keep? What do we try again? Let's speak to the clubs to find out what they want to do.’
“Because I think the clubs have got some good ideas about how they can give us more. But we know the things that we want to keep doing.
“And really like any sport, the closer you get to the team, and the closer you get to the players, that's what people want to see.”
Fuel for thought
When it comes to scoffing top scran and aspiring to be the next Masterchef, Robyn Lewis’ enthusiasm is off the scale.
“A definite ten,” Cardiff Archers guard proclaims with unbridled joy.
“I love it. I’m a massive foodie.”
Enough to put her adoration into the public domain. Courtesy of the food blog she now curated - Lunches with Rob and Lace – in tandem with team-mate Lacey Mackenzie.
Sumptuous dishes to make the mouth water, plastered on Instagram for our benefit, and theirs.
“It was just over lockdown really,” the former GB Under-20 international outlines.
“We’ve been loving cooking and been exploring different recipes. So we thought we’d throw it out there. We follow loads of accounts on Instagram, for food and things like that. We were inspired by things we saw.
“So we thought ‘let’s have our own content for us’. So we started throwing some ideas out there and getting good ideas for what we wanted to cook at home.”
Hence, sushi kits have been ordered and exquisite ingredients procured by any means necessary.
With a little science involved as an essential part of the mix. Lewis’ mother is a home economics teacher. So the education of her palate commenced when she was still young.
“About what to put in my body and an appreciation of good food,” she recounts. “I remember when me and my brother were younger and we went on a family holiday. We used to pack cans of beans and sausages, all the generic stuff.
“Then we went out for a meal and me and my brother were being really fussy. We were really young at the time. We were refusing to eat what was on offer. She said that was a turning point. She decided we would never have anything different to what they would eat.”
Both a player at the WBBL outfit and one of the coaches for the club’s array of junior teams, Lewis is now serving up those learnings as a side dish to upskilling the basketball skills of the Welsh youth.
Vital, she says. “For females especially. Encouraging that healthy body image and not being afraid to put certain things in your body.
“Because it’s all good fuel. It’s so important now, especially as the sport becomes more and more elite. It’s the fine details that make the difference sometimes. I can always tell when I’ve got good food in my body versus when I’ve let it slip a bit.
“Especially after hard exercise, making sure you’re getting your protein in. A big one for me is simple: five fruit and veg a day. That’s non-negotiable for me. I get that in every day. I love all that stuff so it’s quite straightforward.
“It’s about being balanced. It’s ok to have treats. But for me, it’s having enough fuel in and the right things.”
With Glasgow’s Emirates Arena ruled out by strict protocols, next weekend’s BBL and WBBL Trophy finals will be held at the University of Worcester Arena.
It is, to be hoped, second time lucky for the venue after it had to be ditched as the host of this season’s BBL Cup final due to flooding around the venue.
The weather forecast, fortunately for organisers, seems favourable this week.
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Images: Ahmedphotos, Instagram