From heptathlon to hoops, Minichiello has gold targets
And why GB are aiming high, and Washington’s state of mind
Welcome to the sixth edition of MVP’s regular newsletter, The Post Up.
In this issue, we have an exclusive interview with the new chair of the British Basketball Federation, Toni Minichiello, on why unity is vital and who will be coaching GB men going forward. We appraise qualification for EuroBasket 2022 with the hows and whys. Take a look at 3x3 at the 2022 Commonwealths. And a current international gives us a cautionary tale about an American Dream gone sour.
If you like The Post Up, please tell your friends. Thanks for reading.
In the line of duty
The latest to be thrust into a chair that has more resembled a
trigger-happy ejector seat over the past nine years, Toni Minichiello
has instantly required the capacity to simultaneously to cast his vision
across the myriad and disparate fronts of British basketball.
That's where a background coaching the multi-disciplined challenges of
heptathlon comes in handy.
The man who guided Jessica Ennis to Olympic gold at London 2012 has had
an affiliation with hoops just as long as with athletics. Ever
forthright in his options, he was never destined to be a nodding dog
when he joined the board of the British Basketball Federation almost
three years ago.
Appointed for his performance expertise, he now finds himself as its
chairman since Maurice Watkins' decision to step down due to ill health.
The tag, officially, says he is in interim charge. Given the
consistently temporal terms of the holders of the office, the Yorkshireman
is as permanent as he can possibly be.
And hence he must deal with a direct line of fire in the BBF's direction
from the home nations of England, Wales, and especially Scotland in what
seems like an eternal War of the Roses within the sport.
Basketball Scotland's two appointees to the federation's board, Stephen
Ferguson and Doug Folan, resigned amid grumbles of discontent over
strategy and pathways through the funnel which neither has sought to
clearly spell out.
Politics. Twas ever thus.
Minichiello has observed similar familial disputes in track and field.
For the benefit of no-one except those seeking sticks for a beating.
It is baffling, he signals, why instead of staying around to discuss and
debate how the various strands of UK Basketball PLC should effectively
knit together, there are empty seats at the table where once voices were
"Let's make it clear, I don't have responsibility for the whole sport,"
he underlines. "I have responsibility for the BBF which is fundamentally
the senior teams and part of our approach towards 3x3.
"So, it's not for me to answer that question. There has to be a
collective answer between various chairs and chief executives as to how
the sport joins up. If it joins up at all.
"For my part of the sport, what I can say is, I think we've made
progress to where we are. We're pleased with the men's progress. We
would have liked a little bit more with the women. But that for the most
part has been great."
There has been a relatively rosy picture to emerge. Yes, Great Britain's
women let an opportunity to reach EuroBasket 2021 slip away but it is still
less than a year since they were one functional quarter away from
qualifying for the Olympics. Just the right sort of message to send to
the number-crunching keepers of the Lottery purse at UK Sport.
The men, courtesy of this month's majestic performances in Montenegro,
are into the 2022 Euros with the additional perk of a pass into the main
World Cup qualifying draw.
After the summer, basketball will regain its place on the funding list
for the first time in over seven years. £1.5 million has been awarded in
the cycle up to Paris 2024. Significant improvements. Some stability, at
least. For context, however, it remains the lowest sum allocated to any
On Minichiello's to-do list, to try and leverage the kind of additional
commercial investment that has proven elusive so for long. "Because
let's be honest," he proclaims, "£1.5 million doesn't go near far enough to
pay for everything that we do.
"The more successful your team is, the more expensive it is. So we have
to look at it. So it's kind of: 'put your ideal plan down on paper, cost it,
see what we can afford. adjust accordingly.'"
Which is where some semblance of unity helps and disunity damages. There
is an ample body of evidence over the previous four decades that
underlines just why basketball has repeatedly punched below its weight.
With the prospect of a multi-million pound investment into the BBL, with
shoots of promise elsewhere, there have been questions over why Scotland
– who claim support from their brethren – have kicked over their chairs
and walked out of the room.
It is not a good optic. Not when team sports have traditionally had to
go the extra kilometre to press their case, often by playing the
grassroots card and the additional return any investment might bring.
A single voice, as other sports have noted, truly helps. It should not –
cannot - be about partisan interest with so much at stake, Minichiello
"When you're on a board, it's important to understand you're not representing the home country. It's a little strange. You kind of have to park that and go: 'what's in the best interest for the company, on the board on which I sit?'
"Does that make sense? Yeah. That's how you're charged under the
Companies Act. So it's about what's in the best interest of the BBF.
"Now, unfortunately, I think there's a disconnect there, and people come
to the board, or have come onto the board, with the agenda of their own
country, which is different.
"So participation is not an area of the BBF's. I have no responsibility
for the participation numbers or youth basketball or our schools, for example.
"It's not in my gift to deliver it. That is dealt with and dealt with
very well by the home countries.
"So this idea of buy-in ... if you're on the BBF board, you're looking at
the BBF's priorities. And I think it's sometimes difficult and been lost
"So going forwards, you know, I would hope that the home countries would
support the senior men's and women's programmes. And that's because that's the priority of what we as the BBF are trying to deliver.
"Sitting on boards is a tough thing, especially when you're from a
country because you can't not know what you know. And you can't go:
'hold on a minute. That's good for BBF but not great for England,
Scotland, and Wales.' That shouldn't happen as we are dealing with different elements.
"Maybe there's going to be points like that. And you just have to deal
with the position."
For now, he will multi-task and peer beyond this summer when he plans to
be mentoring his small cluster of heptathlon pupils through Tokyo.
Uncertainty surrounds GB's junior teams. For the seniors, there is
significant plans to be crafted.
Women's head coach Chema Buceta has unveiled a wish list of some
off-season competition to reinvigorate his team.
For the men, every little would help too. There is a sense, at least, of
some harmony between the BBF and its leading lights, three years on from
a very public rebellion when players accused the blazerati of
undermining their cause.
Amid the feel-good factor to fly home from Podgorica, there was however
a significant question repeatedly asked: was the decision to appoint
Nate Reinking as head coach a miscalculation? Given his absence on the
ground throughout an ultimately profitable EuroBasket qualifying push
due to his commitments in the NBA G-League.
Give the job to his stand-in Marc Steutel, the Twitterati proclaimed.
Especially with no guarantee that Great Britain's primary shooting guard
from London 2012 will be able to patrol the sideline in-person at the
Euros next year.
The man who first made his acquaintance when they were respectively
player and fan at Sheffield Sharks dispels the notion that there should
be a change.
"You know what? Everything goes as planned," he asserts.
"Like it wasn't planned? We knew Nate wouldn't be around. Do people think Nate had no part in what was going on? Marc and Nate work really well together. More importantly the players, the staff, bought into what was planned.
"You know, we've got an eye on the future as well, where that's all concerned. But this is Nate's team and it all went to plan.
"Now people are asking me to change it. It's like: 'oh, okay. What's that about?' I find it amusing. The plan went well."
Look at the USA, he proclaims. And the way they deployed ex-GB boss Joe Prunty for their recent FIBA AmeriCup qualifiers but will restore Gregg Popovich once the Olympics come around.
"I appreciate it's the USA but it's an example" he adds.
"The Europeans are 2022 in September. We're headed into March 2021. Things are progressing so we have to build from here. We've got some Progression funding (from UK Sport). We use that, we sit down, and plan."
If the unorthodox, trans-continental approach that allows Reinking to play GM and Steutel to call the plays is working well, let us not attempt to fix it.
"The job was get through pre-qualifiers - that was done," Minichiello underlines. "The next job: can we finish third in that group? I think we can.
"We actually finished second in that group. And we won some games. Fantastic.
"Now you plan the next phase, which is between here and then. And we've got World Cup, and there's moving the team towards EuroBasket 2022.
"So it is step-by-step planning."
EuroBasket 2022: what qualification really means
The contrasts between Great Britain’s men in their loss to France in November and their valedictory conclusion to the EuroBasket 2022 qualifiers last Sunday could not have been more stark.
Certainly, the French were as poor as can be. But, Ovie Soko reveals, there was a certain motivation to prove that the encounter in Pau was an aberration, not a true reflection of the disparity.
“The first game we were disappointed because we knew we didn’t come out and play with the ability that we have as a team,” said the French-based forward.
“I was upset that I couldn’t be there. And here we showed we enjoy playing with each other. We play for each other and we just want to win and improve.”
And it showed when digging into the numbers. In Game 1 of the Bataille de La Manche, no GB player had a positive +/- with no efficiency rating* surpassing 14. The guards, in shooting from the field, were a combined 4-29.
Fast forward three months. Only one player with negative -/+ (Gareth Murray who played only when the game was long won). A total team efficiency rating almost 190 per cent higher. The backcourt converting 13-27, just as solid as they had been against Germany two days before.
“This is the key, especially in tournament basketball,” says Luke Nelson, the hero of the hour for his audacious last-second decider against the Germans.
“You have to play well on the right day. We had two solid games. How we played defensively was key for us and we want to continue that into the future.”
That should the calling card. The caveats of this campaign should be acknowledged.
France were without nine NBA players and several EuroLeaguers. Of those who faced the Brits, only Amath M’Baye is probably a lock to be on their Tokyo Olympic roster. During qualification, Germany were down six NBAers, Montenegro a mere one.
GB? Zero. The ying and yang of FIBA’s new in-season windows, the unintended consequence of which has undermined the credibility of the international game rather than enhanced it.
A gift gladly received. But in attempting to compare like for like, let us underline how significant the improvements were from defeat to win with Soko and Nelson, in particular, underlining why they have the capacity to be playing their club basketball at an even higher level.
“That’s the name of the game in sports,” Soko said.
“Every team can have high and low points of the season but it’s about playing well at the right time. This was a good time where we needed to win at least one game. But it’s always better to win two.”
Now, onward, to the first round proper of the World Cup qualifiers in the autumn and the Euros in the summer beyond.
The men, well-marshalled by Marc Steutel, appear to have taken a leaf out of GB women’s playbook by working in unison and playing to their collective strengths in order to turn the whole into more than the sum of its parts.
More to come, Nelson promises.
“I believe we’re just establishing ourselves right now and we’re underdogs and we will continue to be,” he adds.
“But we kind of like that pressure. We play aggressive. We play a good brand of basketball. And I feel like we would compete against most teams in Europe.”
*Efficiency rating is: (points + assists + blocks + steals + fouls on + rebounds) – (turnovers + blocks received + fouls + tech fouls + (2PA - 2PM) + (3PA - 3PM))
Commonwealth programme revealed
Organisers of next year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham have unveiled their programme and their 3x3 basketball competitions are set to slot in over five days, from July 29-August 3.
To be held at Smithfield, there will be four sets of medals up for grabs: eight-team men’s and women’s 3x3 basketball competitions and six-nation men and women’s wheelchair hoops tournaments, with the finals of all on the fifth evening.
Ian Reid, chief executive of Birmingham 2022 said: “We’re on track to stage a magnificent edition of the Commonwealth Games and we have seen huge interest in tickets in recent weeks.
“Now more than ever, people are searching for something to look forward to and that is certainly what we will deliver.”
England are automatically invited, as hosts. However MVP understands Northern Ireland are ready to throw their hat into the ring to hold any home nation qualification tournament, with Scotland also believed to be interested.
The American Dream, Collapsed
It is a cautionary story, Conner Washington admits.
Of realising long-held goals, then seeing ambitions inexplicably implode, and somehow fumbling through the debris to identify enough pieces to glue something of use back together.
At a quick glance, the Leicester Riders’ guard seems a polished product of the UK system, home-grown in Milton Keynes under the tutelage of Lance Haggith then Mike New, allowed to grow and expand on foreign soil, but now a valuable totem in the BBL – and, on occasion, for Great Britain.
Easy to miss on his CV that, for just eleven games in 2011, Washington was in America on scholarship at Southwest Baptist University, a Division Two school located in Missouri.
Just eleven nights on the court, encompassing a spell when the now-28-year-old was living the dream and then left to deal alone with the trauma of a waking nightmare.
Basketball, he readily concedes, had been his salvation when Julia Mary Washington died on Mother’s Day 2003.
He and his sisters, and their dad, had to pick up the pieces. Hoops was his comfort blanket.
“The reason I started playing in the first place was because I lost my mum when I was very young and I didn't really didn't have any direction,” he admits. “That was my escape. And it has obviously been for so many years.
“So once I was learning about basketball, learning how to become professional or learning what the best leagues are, what the highest league was … my initial goal, obviously, was to aim for the highest. So I wanted to make it to the NBA, in my mind.
“One of the ways to do that was to get to the country the NBA is in. So I wanted to go to America no matter what. So when I actually got there, as a young kid, I felt like I had achieved part of my dream by getting a scholarship.”
Quickly however, relations between the head coach Jeff Guiot and his English recruit soured beyond repair.
He averaged 5.9 minutes per game on a declining return. Tensions simmered, above the surface.
“I guess it could be all different reasons, but from my experience, it was just a difference in opinion,” Washington recalls.
The end was brutal. He was advised to quietly clear his locker and go without a fuss if he did not want to sully his reputation to future suitors.
“I literally just felt like dreams had been crushed. So from wanting to go to America, to only get to spend four months there, being told I was being let go, that was just like a stab In the heart.
“Because I went when I was 19. And I started playing when I was 10. So nine years of playing basketball, just dedicating my entire existence to it, and have it be my escape from losing my mum, and then going to America getting cut. It was just like one of the biggest blows. Has really been worth it?
“Because now, I’m just thinking: ‘how am I going to make it to the league if I'm not in America?”
Cast adrift, washed up, spent. At least, that’s how it felt.
Washington considered seeking a transfer, more so as a means to paint over the stigma that he had been rebuffed. That, in his eyes, he was a failure. “I think that was just like a massive weight I didn't want to admit to.”
The options seemed limited, and unattractive. “I wouldn't want to go to a team where I'm the best player because I wanted to improve and be pushed.”
Which is why he returned home. With no intention of picking up a ball ever again.
Until Leicester came calling. Russell Levenston’s power of persuasion – with an assist from Haggith - brought him around. Rob Paternostro’s faith repaired his trust in the sport.
The rest is history. But it almost wasn’t.
It should serve as a warning poster but also a blueprint: why, in the rush to catapult our brightest and best across the Atlantic into the churn of collegiate hoops, we should never forget these are impressionable teens being despatched a thousand miles from home.
His is not a singular case. Others have felt similar deflation. A duty of care, even from across the Atlantic, remains essential.
Fortunately, Washington survived to tell this tale.
To go on to have a terrific career at home and abroad, in tandem with becoming a parent himself.
Living the dream. One that was so nearly extinguished.
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Images: Ahmedphotos, UKA, FIBA