This edition of The Post Up from MVP brings you more exclusive insights and interviews.
We update progress in the British Basketball League’s investment play and ask where the money should be spent.
Rolling back the (14) years with Sheffield Sharks coach Atiba Lyons, he tells us about job security and career changes.
The path to the 2022 Commonwealth Games is uncovered and we reveal why it is inter-twined with Kennedy Leonard’s international future. Plus an exclusive chat to Glasgow Rocks newbie Jaycee Hillsman on his NBA aspirations.
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Spending spree, previewed
Where should the money go?
That’s been a quiet debate around UK hoops circles ever since MVP first broke news of a potential multi-million pound cash injection into the British Basketball League from American investment firm 777 Partners.
13 months on, and we can reveal that discussions have arrived at the brink of a successful conclusion over what was originally christened ‘Project Rebound’.
The due diligence phase is now at an end on a deal delayed and complicated in the fourth quarter, league sources confirmed, due to the summer departure of the Worcester Wolves and Plymouth Raiders but also the wrinkle in parallel of factoring the all-new Plymouth City Patriots around this particular table when the south-west franchise, for all intents and purposes, belongs to and is largely operated by the league itself.
The final numbers and small print of what was pitched as a £7 million buy-in are set to be concluded by next week, MVP has learnt, paving the way for Miami-based 777 to take a 45 per cent stake in the league, expanding a portfolio which not only includes London Lions (which effectively ups the stake to 49%) but also recent €150m acquisition, Italian football club Genoa, a minority stake in Spanish La Liga outfit Sevilla, and streaming service Fanatiz.
But what would the fistful of dollars be thrown at?
Documents seen by MVP suggest the BBL’s first chief executive in two decades would be a start in the reconstruction process.
Digital, streaming, financial and marketing service are priority issues issues in a five-year plan which will be heavily commercially focused. However only a very small slice of the pie - principally repayment of existing loans - is set to be made available to the clubs with the majority centralised for activities that may, eventually, create profits and a return on investment.
Where to splash the cash for the greatest possible impact? We polled a varied group of people in and around the BBL to get their thoughts from the inside.
Left anonymous so they could share freely, they come from three groups: Associates – current or past owners, management or coaches, and referees ; Players – past and present ; and Influencers – media or fans.
We deducted a little of the proposed sum for staffing and other fixed costs that would surely come in at the outset, sticking a pin blindly to float a pot of £5 million to be thrown at improvements or upgrades.
And so, that’s what we asked … where would you spend it?
1) “£500k on match funding for an individual facility, Kickstart 3000-seater arena projects - built in 6 major centres. £1m across all clubs to facilitate a properly resourced Under-21/22/23 division. £1m on staffing up a centralised media department.”
2) “More profiling of British players. Buying TV/ Sky time, then promoting the League. It would involve a League Commissioner. Some resource for the BBF. A professional- looking product (a combination of German BBL and Netball Superleague).”
3) “Support services for players on the medical side, better access to physio, strength and conditioning. etc. Marketing and promotion. Selling tickets.”
4) “The BBL needs a to have a development pyramid so that junior players can get semi-pro contracts to grow. BBL squads are too small as well. You could have rosters of 15, including five who have the ability to turn professional and can be nurtured to then play in the league.”
5) “Greater acknowledgement of the officials with fair rates of pay. Britain’s got the lowest fees of any significant nation in Europe. We don’t have match commissioners. Yet we expect the same standards without proper investment in training and development.”
6) “I would say a marketing uplift, a reliable streaming service that it could then monetise. And beef up staff. I’m not sure where but feels like they need employees.”
7) “Infrastructure throughout each team - Pathway for each team from Under-12 all the way to the pros and back office staff to run a business the correct way.”
8) “I think branding of the league has to be better. We have a professional league and literally 98% of people in the country don’t have a clue about it.”
9) “I feel like we don't broadcast the BBL enough. It should be more televised with more publicity just to get more people aware of British basketball. On the national level, we need to let people know about it. It should go towards broadcasting, publishing and advertisements.”
10) “Building out league front office staff. Full operations team, marketing dept, sales dept, etc. Once you have the people, everything else (in theory) should become a lot easier. It’s a force multiplier.”
11) “Decent TV Coverage. Better arena infrastructure. Better brand awareness. Decent in-house magazine available nationwide. a full time media officer at each club.”
12) “To create a real team at the BBL, one brought in to drive communications, marketing and sponsorship. I would also add player, coaches and officials welfare.”
13) “It needs a strong central executive and for 777 to take control of the board so that you don’t have the clubs getting in the way of doing what’s best for the league.”
Good news for 777, in that the areas of weakness identified are largely reflective of the details in their scouting report and future playbook.
Surprisingly, not one call for increased salaries (referees/officials excepted) but for targeted spend that can raise the bar.
Marketing, branding and media/communications, unsurprisingly, are regarded as the weakest links (money required for this so partly cause and effect) but the pathway is also an area deemed in need of strengthening.
One thought one respondent added, however. “They can’t do it like they seem to be doing with Lions by doing some of the work from the USA.” A fair comment made.
Interesting times - assuming no ultra last-minute hitches on the contract - lie ahead.
The long-standing Lyons
How time flies.
Readers of a certain age (i.e. Under 30) will barely remember Atiba Lyons as a potent forward, all muscle and marauding, before he was first unveiled as the coach of Sheffield Sharks in 2008, the mother of all surprises as an unexpected replacement for the iconic Peter Scantlebury.
He was barely 26 then. The Brooklyn native, now a father of one, hits the Big 4-0 next July.
“It's whizzed by,” he proclaims. “I feel like a young guy, then I see it and I'm like: ‘oh no, I'm old.’
“It has gone by in a flash. It's been so enjoyable. And the club and the players I have had throughout the time have made it a great experience.
“Starting as such a young coach and having success early probably made it a lot easier.
“So those first few years really flew by, when you win championships and you're top of the table. We've also had some tough years. But it's all fun and enjoyable.”
Two BBL Cups, one Trophy victory, a single play-off crown. No higher than second in the league but the Yorkshire outfit have managed to make the top eight at the business end of every single one of his campaigns in the hot seat.
Solely a coach since retiring from playing duties a decade ago, the role has been transformed – mainly by the tech and metrics now available, even in a league such as the BBL.
Plus ca change, Lyons affirms.
“I think the element of just being sure of what you want and how you want to coach becomes easier,” he says. “You've experienced pretty much almost every scenario after ten years.
“You've kind of been through a lot of different elements of the game - and ups and downs - so you know what you want.
“But on game day, there is still the butterflies, still the nerves. You make mistakes, you don't make mistakes. Every game is different.
“So some parts will feel like it's 14 years ago.”
Such a tenure flows against the tide in the win-now-or-else world of hoops. Rob Paternostro was appointed at almost the same time but has the buttress of 15 major prizes and counting.
Lyons, however, is cemented in with the bricks in Steel City, as a director and part-owner of the Sharks. A link which, I venture, alters the levels of job security and consequent pressure he retains.
“Yes and no,” he declares. “I definitely have a lot of vested interest. As an ownership team, we all have our distinct roles and we understand what we're trying to pull for. So there's some solace in that.
“But if I stink and I don't perform, the club will find someone else. So there's always that element that, as a coach, it's the industry you're in. If you don't perform, you can be replaced.
“So as much as I definitely have a lot more rope than most coaches without question, I've still got to perform.”
This a time for the Sharks to peer ahead with a little more ambition than in the recent past. Ground has been broken on their new £5-million arena at Don Valley, one constructed in partnership with Japanese tech company Canon.
Despite Covid-enforced delays, it could fling its doors open by late-2022.
14 years in, it ushers in a new era in Lyons’ spell in Sheffield, one that might offers great ambition and prospects, he concedes.
“What we do now, we do with a very limited resource and we kind of overwork on demands. And I don't think anything changes.
“Our ethos is to really build our community programme and outreach programme. Also with an elite Academy programme and try to swell that talent, like the clubs in Europe and even England are doing.
“And then from the performance side, we've got more access to the gym, you've got more court time, we've got video.
“You've got different things that you can give a bit of a better experience and packaging when delivering the season.
“Sometimes you try to cram things in two hours. We have a short day, and to even just have a home that players know where we are and we can have more facetime with them, that's exciting.
“And hopefully the funds will let us play in Europe and compete.”
Time flying once more, with the dream of further lift off.
Leonard all in as Commonwealth pathway clears
Glasgow is set to beat out Belfast to stage the European qualifiers for the 3x3 basketball tournament at next summer’s Commonwealth Games.
With England secure as hosts, only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are understood to have entered the race to inscribe a second home nation in each of the men’s, women’s and wheelchair 3x3 events.
Basketball Scotland bosses have chosen a window for the mini-tournament, provisionally slated for December 27-29, which slides into a gap in the BBL and WBBL (as well as Irish Superleague) schedules.
It frees up Glasgow Rocks and Caledonia Pride’s homegrown contingent to feature with London Lions guard Kennedy Leonard signalling she is ready to spearhead the Scots bid to chase a medal in Birmingham as a unique gift to her Dundee-born mother, Lyndsey.
She said: “My mum loves Scotland. She's always talking about Scotland. I think it would mean a lot, knowing that my grandma just passed away.
“And so to get to come back and do something for that, it would be really cool for her. She'd probably come and watch as well. So it would probably be a really good experience.”
Of course, it underlines the curious anomaly that Leonard may still pull on a Scotland jersey before a Great Britain one, despite the outstanding form that the playmaker has shown at home, and now abroad, for London.
Blame FIBA’s rigid nationality rules.
Although a UK citizen effectively since birth, New Jersey-born Leonard did not physically acquire a British passport until after the age of 16, rendering her as a ‘naturalised’ recruit by default in the eyes of the sport’s governing body.
Ditto for Karlie Samuelson.
And with only one player with such a status allowed per team, Leonard has been lumped in with the countless Americans opportunistically handed passports overnight by Eastern European nations who have gamed the system over the decades - and found herself frozen out by the presence of WNBAer Samuelson in that specific spot.
The British Basketball Federation, MVP has learnt, has re-submitted a plea for a change of status on the grounds of underlining 25-year-old Leonard’s “commitment to the British game.”
But, said one source, “it really comes down to (FIBA secretary-general) Andreas Zagklis giving it approval.”
“You learn with FIBA that their rules are strict,” Leonard, who has one cap from a friendly, shrugs.
“But I was British the day I was born. My mum is British, she's born British so that in fact makes me British. So I don't think I should be punished for not having done a passport before a certain age.
“I'm here for a long amount of time now. I play here. I live here. I give back to the game here. So I don't know what else I could possibly do. But it's in their hands. So whatever they choose, it is what it is.
“I want to play for GB. I've had a taste of playing for them and in camps and stuff like that and I think I can help. So if they give me the opportunity to do so great. And if they don't, then it is what it is.”
It does float the enticing prospect of GB head coach Chema Buceta utilising Leonard and Holly Winterburn in an all-Lions guard tandem for GB, a duo that might inherit the mantle from the long-time pairing of Rachael Vanderwal and the now-retired Stef Collins.
“Chema has spoken before about us being the future backcourt for GB,” Leonard acknowledges.
“So to be able to play together in a every day situation is good for not only the game but also for each other.
“I can help her, she can help me. I'm a bit older than her so I think I can help her with those kinds of things and the pressures. To have that relationship on the court, but also off it, is crucial.”
Lions continue their EuroCup odyssey next week and despite head coach Mark Clark’s attempt to brush away talk of domestic clean sweeps, the early signs from his stacked squad are promising indeed.
Leonard signed on for the longer term to do more than merely acquiring a WBBL Trophy and Playoff crown as she did in her first year playing in the motherland.
Why not aim high?
“We're trying to win everything we can,” she affirms. “We know we have the roster to do it. The people to do so.
“But I think at the end of the day, we're just doing what we can - and if that's four trophies or whatever, then that's what it is.
“But right now, we're trying to have fun and get to know each other a bit more and enjoy the experience that we're having.”
Hills, mountains, Jaycee a fan of heights
Jaycee Hillsman has insisted his stint at Glasgow Rocks can help propel him all the way to the NBA.
The American forward has been among a crop of newcomers who have validated an off-season turnaround at the Emirates Arena with last term’s basement dwellers on a path to potentially surpassing last season’s five-win total by the end of this month when the BBL Championship begins.
However the 27-year-old has a splash of envy from seeing childhood chums Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson link up together at the Memphis Grizzlies.
And the top of the basketball tree is where he still wants to be.
He said: “Of course, my job is not really to worry about those type of things. I just put in daily work and continue to get better daily, and then just let the chips fall where they may.
“But I'm going to be trying to do as much as I can to elevate myself and elevate my game so that bigger people notice.”
Wintertime in Glasgow is often a shock in the system for the Rocks’ Stateside imports.
Let’s consider this semi-tropical, Hillsman declares, after spending a Covid-haunted, body-frozen rookie campaign with Finnish side Olulun before switching to the UK.
“It was definitely an experience,” he said. “It was cold. It wasn’t that far from the Arctic Circle so it was dark a lot. It was lonely, especially as it was my first professional season last year.
“But it was what it was. I love basketball. I love the things that it has done for me. It’s taken a kid from Illinois, and I've been able to travel across the world, and do different things that, before, I didn't think were possible.
“So it's definitely a blessing.”
Gareth Murray’s rejuvenation act has been hung on adept recruiting so far. Jordan Johnson is very much the real deal as their point guard. Others slotting in too.
Only Elijah Minnie – released last week for what were understood to be issues on and off the court – has not worked out as envisaged.
Yet for the imports, turning out for a player-coach remains a novelty.
“It is actually a first for me,” Hillsman acknowledges. “But Gareth is a great guy. First of all, he's able to connect with us in a different way than some coaches would.
“So I do love that. He's been through the grind. As a 17-year pro, there's nothing that I can do but learn from him.
“So that's the way I view it, as a big learning experience that I can have. Anytime somebody can sustain that level of play for that long, you can learn a lot of things from him.
“He's doing the things that I'm trying to do in my career. So I look at it as a learning experience.”
The mega duel of the BBL Cup arrives on Friday night with Leicester hosting London. The Riders have averaged an atypical (for recent seasons) 91.6 points in their five games to date but, despite losing their opener to Bristol, the quality has not been at the level of London.
Lions put up 89.6 ppg on their initial five contests. But while the total points line on offer will likely hover around 180, past history suggests Leicester will look to pin their rivals back so it’s worth a peek around 170 if available, especially with the capital outfit victorious in FIBA Europe Cup action only 48 hours earlier.