Parks, Permits and a Lucky 777

Why British basketball is primed for changes

Welcome to Edition 3 of The MVP Mail. Our newsletter of exclusive features and news from around British basketball. 

This time out, we hear how homelessness impacted on the life of a current BBL star, we investigate the manner in which Brexit is set to alter the opportunities for our home-grown talents and reveal the latest progress in talks to bring a multi-million pound investment into UK hoops. 

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For Mike Parks, growing up was no Recreation

It began in seventh grade when Mike Parks Jr .was just a boy. A growing lad, already. But still a kid. On the east side of Cleveland where angels feared to tread.

Dad had split. His mother Jamie was trying to hold things together. A son and three daughters to support. Whatever she could do to get them to a better spot for a better life.

New areas, different schools, the stops then began to mount up. 

“Between 11th and 12th grade, I bounced around maybe eight different homes,” Worcester Wolves imposing centre recounts. “And some of them weren’t even suitable for a home. So we went through a lot, but nobody really ever knew because I never talked about it. 

“I always kept a smile at school. Like, once people find that out, they're like, ‘dang, like, I didn't even know he was going through that.’ He adds: “I was just trying to live and get my education and graduate, like my mom was telling me.”

To live, for most, is the mere basic. Taken for granted. For Parks, now in his first season in the British Basketball League, that had to become an ambition and goal, not an unthinking acceptance.

From the east to the west side, to the inner city to the suburbs and outside Cleveland, around the houses and back again. “It was rough,” his mother, Jamie Gambrell declared.

And then some.

“Cleveland is a bad area for sure,” Parks adds. “It's people getting killed every day, you know, robberies and a whole bunch of stuff. Like, you really got to watch your back out there. I ain't going to say I'm safe. But a lot of people know me, you know? Oh, that's big Mike ... they know me.

“But you just never know. I have friends get killed. One time, I was just minding my business. I'm doing a photo shoot at a playground. And then, like a couple feet away from me, they start shooting.

“And I’ve just seen this young boy, 17, shot in his legs. I went over and helped him wait for the ambulance came. So you'll see stuff like that on a daily basis. It's real tough. You gotta be built for that.”

Throughout the chaos, Jamie sought more. Opportunities. Safety. She wanted to become a teacher, a reliable option and a passion. She got in a car accident. Bills mounted up. The kids had to take long bus rides to school from their latest abode.

Life went downhill, Parks reveals. And then got worse.

“I missed a lot of school days. I have seen my mother cry, you know, stuff that you don't want to see.

“We had to stay in an abandoned house. ... that was a tough time. One room, it was in winter. One bed, with my sisters and my mom. We got a little heater,  a little microwave, a TV with no cable.

“So it was really going through it. And we stayed like 40 minutes from my school. So having to catch the bus to school early in the morning. seeing my sisters having to sleep like that. I didn’t like none of that. 

“I'm like, ‘man, in the future, that's all going to change. I never want to experience that again, or want anybody to experience that.’ Because that's you at the bottom right there. That's the lowest of the lowest.”

He wanted to quit school to get a job to get money to get them out. 

Jamie refused, point blank. 

Parks was already a known hoops prospect. The court was his escape from the noise.

His mother, fatefully, landed a role on the coaching staff at his high school, her knowledge invaluable. It was one of the boosts the family needed. “And we got a handle,” he says. “We eventually got on our feet after so long, but it was definitely a tough journey.”

The mother-son bond was strong then, and remains so. I needed to keep a positive mind-set, says Parks. There were perils lurking around the corner.

Simply, he could not let her down.

“It's a lot of cases, especially in Cleveland, where mothers losing their sons, and I'm her only son. I can't do that.”

Colleges came knocking. Without the test scores to automatically jump into Division 1 and the bright lights of the NCAA, Parks attended a community college in Mississippi before earning a transfer to the University of Memphis.

Tubby Smith, a coaching legend, had long tracked him. For a scholarship offer, the repayment was instant numbers as a starter.

Not enough to prevent Smith from being replaced. By a NBA legend in the shape of Penny Hardaway, given the role on name alone. The hype around the one-time Orlando Magic guard was turned up to the max.

“It was crazy when Penny came,” Parks laughs. 

“One of the most lit games was a we played Tennessee. at home. We came out for warm ups. The whole arena was already full. And we play in the NBA arena. 

“So it's like, ‘oh my god, like I've never seen as many people at a game before.’ That was a definitely a sign and I just started to savour the moment.”

Undrafted into the NBA after averaging five points and three rebounds in his senior years, he had the unexpected summons of the NBA G-League when the Raptors 905 picked him up in their annual draft.

He got five minutes of action in total. One shot attempted. No real shot given.

Just business he shrugs. “They brought down this guy (from the NBA) that was in my spot and if they bring down the guy, he has to play regardless.” They let him go, with no return route. “I know the situation,” he adds. Then Covid struck and he was done for a year.

Worcester’s coach Matt Newby offered a reprieve. A wrench too, to be away from his adored son Zachary. But an offer not to be refused, despite delays in processing his work permit.

Averaging five points and six boards so far in the BBL for a mid-table Wolves, the 23-year-old is making himself right at home.

“We definitely can improve more,” he said. “We plan on winning more, definitely. I see in practice, we’re definitely getting it down pat and having each other's back and nobody's being selfish or anything. We know this is a team thing. And we all want to win at the end of the day.”

Back home, Mom is good now. Her admirable determination to keep pushing her son to excel has reaped just rewards.

“We definitely strong,” he proclaims. “Like, we talk every day. And my sisters are in college now. It's kind of funny that they split up and went to different colleges. My mom was kind of hurt. She had a lot of time with her babies!”

Strength in numbers, no matter where they lay their heads.

“Now we definitely have a strong bond because at the end of the day, it was just us. We were all we had. So we had to be strong for one another.”

Listen to an extended interview with Mike Parks Jr on the MVP Cast next week. Subscribe via your preferred podcast provider so you never miss a single edition.

Will 777 be a Lucky Strike?

Talks have reached an advanced stage on proposals for a £7.3 million buy-in to the British Basketball League by American investors, the new owners of London Lions.

Miami-based 777 Partners, who already have a majority stake in the reigning BBL champions, are now in advanced talks to take a 45 per cent share in the league, MVP has learnt.

With a mixture of cash and loans on the table, the deal - which will have to be unanimously accepted by all eleven clubs who currently own the league - would see 777 take control of the BBL’s administration and marketing in an attempt to grow it into a major force in European basketball.

Dubbed Project Rebound, it would not see vast sums headed to each team beyond the repayment of current long-term debts, worth less than £50,000 to recipients.

“What you’d see,” said one source, “is investment in growing the brand, new courts, advertising boards and things like that. They’ve got a five-year plan and if that investment came good, it could make a real difference.”

It is understood that the BBL’s two university-owned franchises, Surrey Scorchers and Worcester Wolves, are slowing the pace of concluding a deal due to the lengthy decision-making processes involved, by necessity, in the public sector.

Although some teams have received emergency funding from the Treasury to cover Covid-induced losses, the pedestrian pace of distributing monies – in either loans or grants – has focused minds.

As has the need to elevate British basketball from its position on the outer fringes of the sporting universe to somewhere closer to the centre. “We need to give this a go,” the director of one club declared. “What have we really got to lose?”

The answer is financial compensation should the proposed deal ever come apart at the seams. Considered a more robust option than a previous approach, last year, from investors in Abu Dhabi, the nature of the idea could be beneficial, says former Glasgow Rocks director David Low – if the terms are right.

“The sport is in a precarious state,” he said. “It’s under-capitalised. It needs investment. So I hope the 777 deal works. 

“UK basketball has been a perennial under-performer. With the right management and the right money, you’d expect you could push up the BBL to the European mean.

“And by getting in now, that investment will grow.” 

777 Partners and the BBL declined comment.

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Permits and permutations

Unmarked and unheralded, last Monday brought a career-altering moment for many British basketballers.

It was the date, in a number of European Union countries, that Brexit truly and effectively arrived.

When players from the UK, hitherto free to roam as they pleased since the Bosman era and freedom of movement began, were converted into the status of ‘foreigners’ in many of the major leagues where they ply their trade.

Now lumped together for the purpose of quotas on imports with Americans, Australians and much of the rest of the world, their position on the job market once this season concludes has changed – and not for the better.

According to Dave Owen’s excellent database, of the 51 British males playing at senior levels overseas, only two – Gabe Olaseni in Turkey and Ben Lawson in Japan - are presently earning their corn outwith the broader European Economic Area.

A handful of others are dual nationals, including the Brothers van Oostrum in the Netherlands and Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye in France. Only a fortuitous few have acquired residency through prolonged stays (step forward Dan Clark).

For most, however, their rights and privileges have been removed. They will now require a work visa within the EU, just as EU nationals now need one coming into the UK.

And while players signed before February 1 will be allowed to see out their current contracts without any change to the status, Brexit will bring challenges come the summer – and beyond.

“British players with a contract that is under way or who were resident in Spain before December 31 2020 will have the EU rules applied,” Irene Librado, the Federacion Espanola Baloncesto’s head of licensing said. 

“So that they don’t have issues if they leave the country after February 1, they will have carry their resident permit that allows them to identify themselves at the border without any problem, But if they haven’t acquired a residents permit before that date, they could have issues at the border.”

It raises an interesting issue that has not quite yet been clarified, one other federation revealed. Even for players who extend their contracts this summer and retain a EU place for the purposes of quotas may cede their residency privileges if they return to the UK or head off on international duty for too long.

Plus, some will now be in a bind. Stay put, and there are immense perks. Move on, even elsewhere in the EU, and there will be no favours retained. “If someone leaves Spain to sign a contract in another country (in 2021-22) and then returns here in a future season, the rights will be lost,” Librado underlined.

That could make it a real bun fight for those players – the majority – who are picking up valuable, if not mammoth, gigs in the lower divisions through out Europe.

Spain’s ACB, the crown jewels of European leagues, is holding discussions with the FEB to up its non-EU quota to three next term but with a parallel increase of the number of Spanish-trained players per roster to five – a move seen as necessary to address a number of foreigners which has moved above 70 per cent across the league.

That particular revision will potentially aid the young Great Britain internationalists, Jacob Round and Kareem Queeley, who – like Clark before them - moved to Spain at a young age and who are considered to have been developed there.

With 14 exports in total, Spain is the largest destination for Brits but Clark is the only Brit presently active in the ACB. That means a lot of employment centred in the tiers below: LEB Gold and Silver, and the semi-pro EBA.

Gold has two foreign spots, the same as the women’s first division, La Liga Femenina. Silver and EBA have just one. All are traditional breeding grounds for young Brits. Easy access is no longer available.

Some nations retain fewer restrictions. France has a generous import quota in its Jeep Elite League with Britons, for now, still counted in the same Bosman B category as those from elsewhere in Europe, like Serbia. They can fill one of the three allowed players in Pro B, the third tier which has proven a popular landing spot.

Germany, home to six British males including Luke Nelson in the BBL – plus Eilidh Simpson in the women’s Bundesliga tallies all foreigners together. Six in the top divisions, three in Pro A and one in Pro B.  You have to go down to the Regionaliga, where former GB guard Joe Hart presently resides, before roadblocks properly come with a sole non-EU spot allowed.

Work permits for new arrivals will, for most, be the primary concern. “We, the sports federation, take the decision of the state,” Jochen Boehmcker of the Deutscher Basketball Bund relates.

“If the state decides that a British player has permanent residence rights in Germany, then he does not need a work permit and we treat him in the regional league as an EU player.

“If, on the other hand, the state decides that the player does not enjoy permanent residence rights, then he needs a work permit and the rules for non-EU players apply.

“I cannot predict how our state will decide the individual cases. Basically, it follows from the withdrawal agreement that such Britons who want to live permanently in Germany are welcome to do so. And that such Britons who only want to live in Germany for a short time (e.g. for a basketball season) do not acquire any special rights.”

Ironically, anyone wanting to play in Brussels has a better shot too. “As far as work permit goes, UK players are now also considered ‘third country nationals’, and thus must meet the conditions of professional non-EU players,” Tom van de Keere of the Belgian League, who also enforce the six non-national quota, said.

And yet it is not solely about ducking inside the allowed overseas limits. Many nations, including Spain, impose higher licence costs for non-EU players and coaches. The price of work permits varies too but they rarely come cheap. 

Before, a general manager could eye up someone from Manchester and Madrid and choose based on talent and need. Now there is a price differential – and perhaps even a salary minimum - on top.

Adds van de Keere: “As of 1 January 2021 British players are subject to the minimum wage limit for non-EU players which is set around €81.000.”

What, you may ask, about those travelling in the opposite direction: across the Channel, North Sea or Northern Irish border?

The latter a non-factor due to the continued Common Travel Area. The others, now complicated and subject to change.

The BBL rules presently permit “5 foreigner players, regardless of their nationality, plus 5 home grown” per club.

Europeans and Americans and anyone else, all in a fair fight for jobs. “The way our rules are currently set up allows for that,” BBL chief operating officer, Andy Webb affirms. “We don’t need to make a rule change to allow European players to come to the BBL.”

However, from this summer, a Frenchman or Lithuanian will be subject to the acquisition of a work visas. At a cost. And with red tape hassles.

Plus, just as any company looking to bring in hired help from overseas must demonstrate that the individual adds ‘special talent’, UK teams seeking to sign EU nationals may need to prove they have merit beyond those already here.

One to watch. “There is ongoing dialogue at the moment between the Home Office and the governing body,” Webb added.

Isolation the price to pay for GB duty

Gareth Murray’s lengthy streak in the Great Britain squad, dating back to 2013, was ruptured at the tail end of last year when he determined that his new dual role as player and coach at Glasgow Rocks had to take precedence over international duty.

There is no fixture clash during this month’s vital EuroBasket qualifiers against France and Germany which is why the 36-year-old has returned to a 24-man initial squad for the bubble trip to Montenegro.

But, as with others among the home-base contingent, the present government rules on travel no longer offer a blanket exemption from quarantine rules for elite athletes upon their return to the UK.

Which means the Scottish veteran only accepted the call when it was guaranteed by officials that he would not have to sit out any subsequent BBL games.

“I have to record a negative Covid test 72 hours before returning to the UK,” he said. “And then when I get back, I have to follow strict protocols.

“So I can go to practice and play games. But I’m not allowed to go to the shops or even the Rocks office. I pretty much have to self-isolate for ten days.”

Photos: Ahmedphotos, Wolves, Rocks


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