The Trophy final issue

How Covid will bring a different feel to Worcester on Sunday 

Welcome to Edition Nine of MVP’s regular newsletter, The Post Up.

Ahead of the BBL and WBBL Trophy finals, we hear how Kennedy Leonard of London Lions has suffered more than most due to Covid. Denzel Ubiaro of Plymouth Raiders takes us through his highs and lows. And we reveal just why Vince Macaulay is ready to celebrate.

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Going viral a bitter pill for Kennedy Leonard

As the dark days of last winter approached, Kennedy Leonard’s fears were realised when coughs and wheezes were followed by a positive Covid test. 

“I got it and two other team-mates got it as well,” London Lions point guard reveals. “I mean, I couldn't taste or smell. And I still have issues with it. But, I am one of the fortunate ones.”

Back, almost, up to full speed, the 24-year-old will shrug off the lingering effects to lead her side into Sunday’s WBBL Trophy final in Worcester against Nottingham Wildcats. 

The opportunity for the capital club to secure its first piece of senior silverware, a chance for Kennedy to reap a tangible reward from her decision to see out the pandemic in the Women’s British Basketball League rather than spending her sophomore season as a professional in mainland Europe.

Family ties were a secondary part of the lure. 

Raised between Chicago and text and schooled in Colorado, her mother Lyndsey had decamped from Dundee to the United States in order further her ambitions of becoming an Olympian in the swimming pool. 

She settled across the Atlantic, married and had three daughters of her own. Pondering her options following a campaign in Germany, her youngest offspring sensed an opportunity to spend precious time in the UK with her grandmother Alison, as and when pandemic protocols permitted. 

“Because we were trying to stay safe, I didn't end up going to see her,” she recalls. 

Tragically, just weeks after Leonard was plagued by the virus, Gran – aged 80 - was struck down too. 

“I’d spoken to her right when she got it. She had actually broken her leg. That's why she went to the hospital and she was exposed there. She was like, ‘I'm feeling good. I don't feel anything really coming on.’ She said: ‘I'll call you in a few days.’ And then three days later, she was dead.” 

The indiscriminate brutality of coronavirus, as so many have found. While her aunt Morag was left to take care of the painful formalities, a granddaughter continues to grieve from afar. 

“But I'm lucky that I didn't have that experience with it,” she adds. “It's a brutal, brutal thing to have to deal with.”

The show, the game – life - must all go on. 

London, pacesetters in the WBBL, will look to the domestic game’s assist leader to be a guiding light against Nottingham, who are seeking their first prize since lifting the Cup in 2018.

Despite succumbing to a first league loss in midweek at the hands of Sevenoaks, Mark Clark’s side are clearly favourites to prevail.

“It's definitely a good opportunity,” Leonard notes. 

“We've heard the saying that it's hard to beat a team three times. We've played Nottingham twice. We beat them once with our whole team and then with some people who were out injured. But I think honestly, it comes down to us. 

“That's what we try to focus on. And if we can run and execute our things the way that we need to run and execute them, then we'll be fine.”

Amid the constraints in place in what passes for her basketballing bubble - and the limitations on what would, in normal times, have been a year of savouring the distractions and discoveries in London to the max – choosing the WBBL over a foreign destination has provided a better challenge than she had hoped.

Full-time rather than semi-pro, the level has exceeded the league’s perception from afar.

“It's definitely different,” she underlines. “But I think that, especially with our team, we bring a starting five who are all previous Division One players. 

“So I think the talent that we've brought, it brings the league talent up a tonne. And it's been good ... if we continue to play the way we have been playing, I think more and more people will start to watch this league and pay attention to it.”

The convenience beats Germany, where a translation app became her best friend during her rookie campaign. Although, she notes, dealing with these sorts of challenges toughens the spirit and sharpens the mind. 

“You get reminded that you're not at home,” she says. “But it's not necessarily a bad thing.”

Solidifying her nascent career in the paid ranks means ambitions can be harboured and chased. 

The holder, figuratively, of a single Great Britain cap from a friendly against Sweden in 2019, FIBA’s pernickety and peculiar definitions of eligibility have blocked a follow-up pass.

Like Karlie Samuelson, having one British parent has technically made her a subject of the UK from birth. And yet, since neither physically acquired a passport prior to their sixteenth birthdays, both are classified identically to the slew of Americans – commonplace with countries like Turkey and Russia - who have gratuitously gifted citizenship and financial rewards to those without a drop of a blood tie to their new nation, in return for points and rebounds and a dollop of lustre.

As such, Leonard and the illustrious Samuelson are competing for a single spot. The former will keep making a case with her play. “Sometimes, a chance is all somebody needs,” she underlines. “So I think I could help and make a difference.”

British Basketball, she confirms, are making renewed efforts to plead their cases. Being based on ‘home’ turf might, she trusts, enhance the argument offered to FIBA’s bureaucratic machine.

“But we've already fought once, I think two years ago, on a different basis and it was rejected. So now we're trying to come from a new approach and we're hopeful. We've gotten word that it's a good argument. So we're hoping that it goes through.”

London Lions will bid to make a point of their own come Sunday. An opportunity beckons to emulate Leicester Riders by capturing the men’s and women’s Trophy in the same year, albeit with a unique invitation to do so on the same day and on the same arena floor.

Interaction between the brother and sister outfits has been limited, by necessity, Leonard reveals, with the male Lions hit by a mass coronavirus outbreak in January that forced their expulsion from European competition during a whirlwind of a Sunday that saw a short-handed squad vanquished by Newcastle in an oddity of a BBL Cup final. 

“Covid has made it extremely tough,” Leonard affirms. “We have different bubbles so we're not really allowed to mingle. So even if we're in the same gym, we try to stay on different sides. 

“So we see them, they see us. They come talk to us, we can come talk to them, but from a distance. But we're all excited for us both to be in the final.”

More than Dunks to Denzel

He is, says Kieron Achara, “the most improved player in the BBL, no question.”

Arguably, if the Twitterati and the Instagrammers, are to be believed, among the most exciting too.

Denzel Ubiaro isn’t getting unduly carried away by dynamic displays of dunks and defence that have bumped his rep up to new heights and created ample material for an abundant compilation of his aerial assaults.

“Not too much,” declares Plymouth Raiders’ shooting guard with genuine modesty. 

“One of my team-mates is always telling me: ‘Denz, get a dunk! You've got a fast break, get a dunk on him'. 

“I'm just, ‘I need to get back on defence. I need to hustle, rebound, as much as I can.’” 

But, he adds, smiling broadly, “it is nice to get a highlight reel here and there.”

Both the basic and the blimey prisms of his game have proven a significant factor in the Raiders’ charge to their first BBL Trophy final since 2017, the 24-year-old carving himself out a vital role despite an ante upped and a budget raised at the Devon outfit since their purchase by Turkish magnate Enver Yücel, 13 months ago.

8.5 points per game averaged, a third successive campaign raising that scoring bar amid continuing demands from head coach Paul James for the young Londoner to keep unlocking more of his undoubted potential.

“I feel like the main thing is my maturity level,” is Ubiaro’s self-evaluation of his progress. 

“Just making sure that no matter if we're up or if we're down, I'm just staying up at the same level.

“And the biggest thing for me was to just be consistent day in, day out. Make sure I work as hard as I can, pull the best defence I can. 

“Make sure I provide for the team. And, make sure I contribute to a win in the column.”

Some are born great, some have greatness thrust upon them, Others are a slow burner but with a flame eventually ignited.

Ubiaro’s passion for the game was lit during formative years spent in both Atlanta and Texas, his father’s career as an engineer affording the family a lengthy trans-Atlantic expedition that gave his son an initial hoops fix before their return to the UK.

“That was definitely helpful,” he claims. “I think there's a trend where Americans are more like gritty, and they kind of grind and get after it when it comes to basketball. I think in sports in general, really. 

“It's just so much of a huge culture behind sports. And that really helps to bring the passion out of it.”

Repatriated with that appetite fuelled, he continued his upskilling at Peckham Pride and Westminster Warriors. There was enough talent showcased to procure a recall across the Pond to Marshalltown, a junior college in Iowa, where he would not quite remain a full year.

“It was pretty tough,” he says. “But I kind of enjoyed the experience of going there.”

Back home in the summer of 2016, he was scrimmaging at a local court when his knee suddenly gave way. Scans showed he had sustained the traumatic blow of a torn ACL. A game changer in every sense.

“I went through the rehab process of it,” he recalls. “And then I just thought to myself that I'd rather go on a different path towards my end-goal, which has been a professional basketball player.”

It took several months of painstaking and often painful restoration. The doubts, inevitably, crept in, he acknowledges. 

“Am I going to come back? Yeah. Am I going come back normal? Am I going to still be able to do the things I could do on a basketball court? 

“I think it was more mentally challenging than physically. And I think I'm still slowly trying to get my mental side consistent.”

Plymouth was Plan B. A solid option, with a degree at Marjons University as a supplementary incentive to head southwest. An infrastructure to strengthen mind and body and accelerate once again.

And now, four years on, comes a shot at pulling off superlative slams in a major final.

With a medal up for grabs as well, ideally a winner’s one if Plymouth can manage to ground London Lions.

Hitting his stride in this Covid-infused season, you sense Ubiaro will be happy to fly a little higher with each appearance.

“I'm enjoying it definitely,” he declares. “I feel like this is a group of guys that's well, gelling nicely. 

“There's just a positive environment with the team. That translates on court.”

60 not out, Macaulay all in for a party

The party poppers will surely be stashed somewhere on standby. Even if Covid has doomed any plans for a fittingly raucous celebration.

Vince Macaulay-Razaq, as he usually does, will still be the man with the booming laugh at the heart of it all, having what appears to be a whale of a time. 

60 years young he will be on Tuesday. The lad from Liverpool, reaching this landmark birthday, with a socially-distanced stroll in a park the best legal option available.

“I can’t do anything special,” he chuckles without a trace of a moan. “Although I’ve got five sisters. And they’ll have something in mind, I’m sure.”

Over to his players, hence, to justify revelry, of sorts. 

A win over Plymouth in the BBL Trophy would afford him a parade, even in front of barely two dozen people to be permitted inside Worcester Arena to witness the distribution of the season’s second piece of silverware.

Entering his seventh decade, the man who has guided this franchise on an odyssey from Hemel to Watford to Milton Keynes - then to London south and east - shows no obvious signs of slowing down.

Even if the investment provided by the current owners, Miami-based venture capitalists 777 Partners, has allowed Macaulay to ease off just a tad.

“We've added five more people to do what I was doing,” he reveals. “It is a very unique situation. 

“Since 1993, when I took over at Hemel, I don't think I've had to only just go coach a basketball team.”

There’s been spells when the coaching duties were devolved, of course, latterly in 2018 when his fifth spell at the helm began with the sacking of Mariusz Karol. But there were always still sales and marketing duties, contracts to be sorted, probably kit to wash. 

The scale has expanded exponentially during the past 18 months. Former NBAers, in their prime, ported to The Copper Box.

European competition entered, albeit restricted to a damaging loss in the Basketball Champions League qualifiers, the consequence of FIBA’s decision to expel the still-reigning British Basketball League champions from its Europe Cup in the wake of the virus outbreak that throttled their tilt at the BBL Cup in January.

The Lions, Macaulay reveals, will be pinging off their entry form as soon as the BCL opens its submissions of interest for the 2021-22 campaign at the end of this month.

“We're certainly very strong in our plans for next season and they're not changing. 

“We want to be, successful. And we want to be competing in Europe and winning games in Europe. So we'll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Which, he trusts, will include the retention of the core of this term’s roster, even if it has too-frequently not quite added up to the sum of its considerable parts.

DeAndre Liggins – one of those forced to sit out the Cup final reverse to Newcastle - is an obvious component to try and hold firm. Recruitment, Macaulay signals, will be carefully considered looking ahead.

“We've seen a lot of teams in Europe now. Maybe we could add some stuff there. 

“I think there will always be salary cap issues, because if you want to add to the squad, where are we in this country with the salary cap? That's going to continuously hold us back. 

“Because there's no reason why we shouldn't go and get another couple of Liggins and try and win in Europe.”

Half his life now has been devoted to his passion project. Miscues and moments of disorganisation, perhaps a symptom of personal overload, during that time. 

Yet here Macaulay remains, the Great Survivor, with his wonder years maybe still lying ahead.

Edging back towards some normality, he would wish for a Trophy triumph to crank up a vibrant momentum in London that accelerates when fans return and the potential of the 777 era can truly be measured.

“We were going in the right direction with what we had done last season,” he underlines. 

“The guys that we brought in this season would have brought a lot of attention to the club. And we would have engaged more, had the people actually been there. 

“So it's been tough. It's been very to difficult to evaluate.

“We're launching all our uniforms and stuff like that shortly and things like that. People are wanting to buy uniforms, and people are wanting to see games. I think it was 3200 people at our last game that we played before lockdown. 

“It is painful to think of what might have been. But we just have to make the most of what we've got.”

Enjoying the moments that matter, with a cake – or even a silver cup - close to hand.

Watch streaming coverage of the Trophy finals via MVP247.com from 2.30pm on Sunday

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