A Flying Start
How Chris Paul's influence can be seen in the BBL
Welcome to the final issue of The Post Up of 2021.
Bristol Flyers point guard Marcus Evans reveals the debt he owes to NBA superstar Chris Paul for giving him a leg-up in the world of basketball.
Gary Stronach tell us about his unplanned decade out of the game and why Newcastle Eagles made him an offer he would not refuse.
We hear of progress in cutting a deal to unlock the British Basketball Federation’s funding, how one WBBL star is unburdened by the pressure to deliver on import expectations, and why Covid has flushed plans for a testimonial campaign.
And Tayo Ogedengbe relates how he is repaying a debt - by talking about his spell of homelessness.
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And from me, have a great (and hopefully Covid-free) Christmas and a terrific New Year, and thanks for reading MVP.
CP3 a model PG for Marcus Evans
Not on the list, not coming in.
Marcus Evans strolled through the doors of the gym in the North Carolinan outpost of Winston-Salem with the golden ticket that so many would have traded their shooting arm for.
Chris Paul, playmaker extraordinaire, stages his Elite Guard Camp each summer back in his hometown - only around 50 of the brightest and best from the high school and collegiate ranks are summoned to listen and learn.
Three days of hands-on tuition from the now-Phoenix Suns behemoth. His current club-mate Devin Booker is among the camp’s graduates along with CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal and a certain shooting star named Steph Curry.
Plus, Bristol Flyers playmaker-in-chief.
“I guess I got recommended and then I got the invite,” reveals Evans, who split his university days between Rice and Virginia Commonwealth.
“It was a weekend, just a lot of one-on-one work with him. Drills and then playing, going up and down, a lot of film sessions … really just picking his brain. And learning as much as you can in those few days.”
Paul, with two Olympic gold medals in his locker, has been running the initiative for a decade. Call it a Masterclass – with some free gear thrown in.
The 36-year-old was just one of the guys, Evans underlines. Hands on, not stand-off.
“He's involved in everything, Team meals, warming, stretching, getting shots up. He's there the whole time.
“But, as far as just being around him, you just ask as many questions as you can. With all the knowledge he has, and years he’s played, I mean you'd be dumb not to pick his brain as much as you can, while you're around him.
“It's a little nervous at first. But you see the opportunity to go out in front of a NBA Hall of Famer. So once you get on the court, you realise the opportunity you have, and it doesn't come by often.
“Those nerves quickly turn to competitiveness after that.”
In his first campaign in Bristol, Evans has been notching 13 points and, significantly, just shy of seven assists per game. New opponents to scout. Fresh life lessons to deal with, especially as Covid begins to bite the BBL.
In the study sessions, the 25-year-old can lean back on weekends like those to help prime himself for each challenge in the way.
And also from the past bumps in the road. Like the consecutive summers when he tore an Achilles – once right, once left – during pick-up games where all was well until he felt the dreaded pop.
Second tear around came the inevitable fear – of just how cursed or fragile he might be.
“A lot of thoughts go through your mind,” he reflects. “Especially, how long the process is trying to get back. But it's really about your will.
“I kind of told myself, I came back from it once. So it's never going to never be easy, but I know what I need to do.
“It really just tests your will and how much you love the game.”
It did light a fire in his belly, to push uphill so he could accelerate downward once again and feel the wind behind him.
“It can be kind of draining,” he adds, “knowing that it feels like you're starting from square one, not even to be able to walk.
“But then the other end is … when you look at the stats, and how unlikely it is to be able to come back from those type of injuries, it does give you that little boost, that motivation that I got.
“I proved people wrong, just getting back to your old self.”
The signs are positive. Andreas Kapoulas’ side are off to one of their better starts in their BBL history.
He may still stay up late for the odd lesson, from Paul or the others on whom he can model his craft.
With the spring back in his step, Evans will seek out the most VIP of invites and see what doors open.
“Sky's the limit,” he underlines. “I mean anything less than that, I'd be cheating myself. So any good game or anything good that happens, that has to become the standard for me.
“If I set a season-high in assists or points, whatever it is, that needs to be my new standard.
“And what's next? What's my next season-high?
“So I mean, as long as I just keep looking at it as there's no real ceiling for me, then I think I'll be successful.”
Out of exile, Stronach a spark again on the sidelines
He never intended to stay away. But it’s rather good that he’s back.
By any rights, in the relatively stagnant coaching carousel of the British Basketball League, Gary Stronach should have been basking in a job for life in Plymouth, having led the Raiders out of the NBL, into the top flight - and then acquiring the BBL Trophy in 2007 to solidify his status as a folk hero of Devon hoops.
Three summers on, at the end of a difficult campaign and one short of concluding a quarter-century at the club as player and then coach – he turned down a new contract and resigned out of left field.
"I think it's time for me to move on, broaden the horizon and see what's out there,” he said at the time.
What lay ahead was not quite what he had envisaged. It has taken eleven years for him to return to basketball and the sidelines, aged 57, as Ian Macleod’s assistant at Newcastle Eagles.
“I left Plymouth with the proviso of trying to get another coaching job and that didn't materialise,” he reflects. “But then I found the longer I was away from the game, the less I was missing it.”
His time was well occupied. Caring for his elderly mother. Following his wife and her career to the United Arab Emirates. “I was quite happy,” he says. A kept man, I tease. “Don't say that too loud,” he smiles.
“I was still in contact with people in the game. So I could still talk basketball, everything. And those months became years. I wasn't looking for anything.
“We moved to the Emirates for four years from 2012-16 and then came back to the north-east (of England).
“I was going to a couple of Eagles games during those years and talking to people and things like that. Literally, it was only probably within the last two years, I really started to think 'wow I want to get back in... it doesn't matter what level or what I do.'”
Then Covid hit and hiring was frozen left right and centre. But last summer, MacLeod’s current assistant Mark Elderkin stepped away due to his university commitments and there was a vacancy to fill.
Stronach recounts: “(Mac) said: ' what do you want to do?' And I just said: ‘well I'd love to be involved with the professional side again.’
“He's like, ‘how about being an assistant?’ And I went ‘brilliant.’ And that was it. We started September 1, and so far, you could write a story already.”
One that’s involved Stronach stepping up when Macleod was felled by Covid early season.
But a new three-man coaching brains trust has evolved that also includes Jack Burgess, the Scot lured back from coaching in Spain to transplant the knowledge gained there into the Eagles academy programme.
“Both are really good thinkers of the game and young guys as well,” says Stronach. “So it's nice to be around some young British coaches.
“And I'm just trying to be an assistant coach and help them as much as I can. And they've showed me stuff I since we've been together. It has just been an amazing experience so far.”
The Raiders, of course, continued to build off the platform bequeathed when he was succeeded by Gavin Love, Jay Marriott, a couple of Australian oddballs, and then Paul James before the club as we knew it imploded last summer.
Stronach is the still the only coach to have transported a major honour to the south-west.
It will always be a second home despite roots replanted in his native Tyneside.
“I've got no regrets,” he underlines of his departure. “You can't look back. I made that decision. Now this is a new adventure for me.
“When I spoke to Coach Macleod in the summer, I said: ‘let's see how I go. I don't know how my body is going to take all the travelling.’
“I'm doing everything you know as an assistant that I possibly can. So I'm at practice every day. I'm on the road with these guys all the time. Home games, I’m there as well.
“And I just want to give as much as I can to the Eagles. And so I do not regret leaving Plymouth.
“But unfortunately, if we didn't have Covid, I might have been back in the game a little bit earlier.”
A little greyer, no less enthused, back where he belongs.
But with acquaintances renewed, would Stronach like to be a head coach again?
No thanks, he cries.
“I'm more than happy doing what I'm doing. I see those two guys sitting there ready to go to war. And it's great.
“I know I've got a wealth of experience, but then there's two bright sparks of basketball. And I'm hoping that this season can be a really special one for Eagles.”
Taylor, still made
Caledonia Pride guard Taylor Edwards insists the Scots can bounce back from a wretched start to the WBBL campaign.
Bart Sengers side ended 2021 in last place when their trip to Gloucester last weekend became the first in a line of games in the league to be hit with a Covid-related call-off.
But the American guard, who has struggled with running the team since arriving last month, admits being an imported gun means not firing blanks.
“There's an expectation,” she said. “The pressure, I definitely felt that my first game, but it's not really something I'm not used to. I'm always used to pressure. So I'm rising into it, to get back in rhythm.
“It's a high expectation. So I always hold myself to a higher standard, and take care of business. But also I just feel like as a team, we just need to learn each other more and we will be better.
“We need to go into every game like you're going to win no matter what the record says. There’s no pressure on us. It's just we have to stick to the plan, execute, get back into gym and work a little harder and be prepared.”
Meanwhile the WBBL is facing the possibility of a huge catch-up of fixtures that has some fearing if it will even be feasible if Omicrom hangs around.
Unlike the BBL, midweek games are a rarity in the women’s top tier due to cost and because, simply, players and coaches often have day jobs.
The one saving grace might be that the WBBL has an extended Christmas shutdown which could act as the kind of circuit breaker that football has resisted.
Seats and switches
Some small movement has come in patching up the discord between the home nation governing bodies and the British Basketball Federation.
With the sides forced back to the table under some behind-the-scenes pressure from UK Sport, MVP has learnt that England, Scotland and Wales will ask – and assuredly be granted – a change to the federation’s articles to hand them an extra seat each on the BBF board from 2022, shifting the balance of power away from the independent directors.
It is understood that a permanent chair will be recruited in the New Year to fill the void covered by Toni Minichiello since the death of Maurice Watkins.
However it all stops short of agreeing the framework to sign off on the Collaboration Agreement demanded by UK Sport to obtain the release of the £1.1 million left on basketball’s high-performance funding in the Paris 2024 cycle.
Further mediation is expected in the New Year with more meetings scheduled.
One of the issues to watch out for in 2022 is the ongoing liquidity of the BBF who are still thought to need upwards of £500,000 to run the two senior sides over next year, including the men’s EuroBasket.
Home, for Tayo, a game-changer
It was a few years before basketball started to pay its way, when university and proving himself on the court were the day jobs but the nights required more of a labour still.
“There was,” Tayo Ogedengbe reveals, “a period that I was homeless.”
A stark illustration that it can happen to anyone, even a bright young man with big dreams and a strong work ethic. In the case of the now-Surrey Scorchers captain, his parents had relocated away and relations had broken down with the family member who had been entrusted with his care.
The saving grace, he admits, was a charity that stepped in to put a roof over his head when he needed it most. “I actually lived on the Centrepoint accommodation for, I think, a whole year. And they really changed my life.”
He adds: “I was in a rough place, I was still at university. So I was trying to juggle university with being homeless. So they came at a good time. And they work with young people and help young people that are either going through stuff that can affect their accommodation or any kind of situation like that.
“When I left there, they helped me get a place.”
And that was that, for a decade, a period in which he had a brief spell in America but then established himself as one of the BBL’s best, interrupted only by a diversion to France where he proved himself a fine export across the Channel.
Now 34, married to Rhianne, with three boys under the age of six, and with key roles on and off the court for Surrey, life could not seem much sweeter
But he remained grateful for a break that shifted everything. So a few years ago, he reached out to Centrepoint with a simple ask: was there anything he might do to pay it back?
“They reached back to me and asked would I like to be an ambassador and tell my story?' So I've told my story to some of the young kids that they have, and done a few things for them.”
And it is a useful instructive tale, of hope rather than despair.
“Most of the time, a lot of these kids are going through something,” he reflects. “And I think when you're going through something, it's really important that you understand that you're not always going to be going through that thing that's got you down.
“I'm kind of an example of that.
“So I try and like help them see that, at the moment you're down, but this won't last forever. And there's ways of getting out of this through Centrepoint. And through people's help.
“There's people out there that can help you get through whatever you're going through.
“Some of them have family issues, some of them have drug issues, some of them have kids while they're really really, really young. There's different issues that they're all facing.
“So just to hear that it's not a lifelong experience for them. I think they appreciate that. And it helps them get through the situation.”
He can impact in other ways now too.
Through the burgeoning business set up with his spouse to get kids into sports, one nod to the reality that he is on the back end of his playing days.
“We have our own teams, and I have my own teams,” he outlines. “And that's starting to grow. And I'm starting to get a real passion for that. So that's one of the avenues I might look to go into.
“I'm just taking every day at the moment, step by step. I've still playing. So that takes still takes up a lot of my time. But we'll see. I'm not fully sure which avenue I'll go into yet.”
While he remains in Guildford, he plans to influence the BBL as well.
One of the club reps for the Players Voice initiative that has been established to give weight to views from that fraternity, he foresees that morphing into a trade union at some point to represent on issues such as safety, salaries and pastoral care.
“I feel like there's been a big push forwards in terms of the Sky deal and in terms of different investments that have come in,” he underlines. “And then sometimes investments can go missing.
“I just want to get us to get to a point where the minimum is the minimum. And we're not dropping below that.”
That, Ogedengbe argues, is where offering the central performers a seat at the table can be an opportunity for the BBL, not a threat.
“I definitely feel like we're slowly going in the right direction. I definitely feel like asking players questions about the league is a good step. And it should have been done a long time ago.
“Let's move that forward, let's not just ask players about the league, let's put players in a position to make decisions about the league.
“Because I think the BBL is such a unique league, that unless you played in it or have been a part of it somehow, you don't really understand how it's run. The things that happen. The good and the bad of it.
“So I think people that have had the experience: the Kieron Acharas, the people like that, they've been through the league. And understand, and are able to bring input, and try to make the league better.
“I think that for me, that would be the logical step, bringing these people into roles. Whether it's management or decision-making roles, or even just bringing people to the table when decisions are being made.
“I think that was one of the things I first tried to put forward to the BBL.
“When these meetings have taken place, and you guys make some decisions about the league that we play in, let's have someone there that represents the players that can say: 'oh, maybe it's not a good idea for us to have two or three games back-to-back.'
“Or maybe it's not a good idea for this to be put out … you know, those kind of those kind of things.
“It'd be good to have people with experience and knowledge on the area to help make these decisions.”
To donate to Centrepoint this Christmas and give homeless young people a safe place to live, click here.
Listen to an extended interview with Tayo Ogedengbe on the MVP Cast.
Spare a thought for Glasgow Rocks’ Jonny Bunyan, along the longest-tenured players at a single club in the BBL and due to have a richly-deserved testimonial this season.
Originally scheduled for during February’s international break, an extra event at the Emirates Arena effectively kicked his date into touch.
Now, with multiple games likely to be in need of making up – if indeed the campaign is completed at all – the Scot has abandoned his plans and shoved back until next year.
“It’s just going to be difficult to arrange with all this uncertainty,” he said. “I can’t even plan anything now.
“You look at the league and the games that are off already. You just hope now that the BBL isn’t going to descend into chaos.”
If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping, a reminder that MVP’s best basketball buy list is available for some handy gift ideas.
And, thanks to our friends at Always Ballin’, we can offer you a discount from their online store using the code MVP 10.
It was inevitable that Plymouth City Patriots have rung the changes to stand a shot at competing this season, signing ex-Raiders and Riders forward Rashad Hassan and picking up American guard Antonio Williams.
It is unclear whether either or both will be available for Sunday’s trip to Cheshire Phoenix. But with the Nix toiling, having a peek at Plymouth to upgrade at +5.5 on the spread could put something in your stocking.
Covid outbreak hits London Lions
Commonwealth Games qualifiers postponed
Images: Bristol Flyers/JMP Sport, Rocks