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So enjoy the first edition. Where we speak to Andre Lockhart about London Lions’ rise. To Ron Delph about the change of presidency in the USA. And find out what the hell will happen with the WBBL Cup final.
More to come in the weeks ahead, Mark Woods
The only pressure on London Lions is keep winning
Expectations are high at London Lions heading into Sunday’s BBL Cup final.
No shock there. League leaders. Bigger names from an enlarged budget.
Undoubted favourites to beat Newcastle Eagles in a showpiece hastily switched to Leicester Arena within the last 48 hours.
We know people are looking to us as winners-in-waiting, admits long-time Lions guard Andre Lockhart.
That leaves Eagles, five-times previous Cup holders, with nothing to lose and all the pressure on Vince Macaulay’s men, right?
“You know, it's a weird question,” Lockhart tells MVP. “And the reason why I say that is because it does feel like that pressure should be on us and it should be win or bust.
“But in our league there are so many other trophies to get at the same time. So we can't dwell on one cup, or one final. It's onto the next. That's how it is in our league.
“So I think, to be honest, I don't want to say that we're not expecting to win. We are trying our best to win. But at the end of the day, it's a basketball game, and everyone puts the ball in the hoop the same way, puts their pants on the same way, and puts the jersey on the same way.”
However, such is the depth of London – bankrolled by their new US-based owners, 777 Partners – that they possess a depth chart in every position.
No matter that former NBA centre Byron Mullens returned to the USA, never to return, with no real acknowledgement of his departure (newsflash… he's gone!). Up steps Chris Tawiah with Faro Alihodzic and Shane Walker as commendable back-ups.
Kevin Ware and Justin Robinson can split time at point guard. But then Jules Dang Akodo and Lockhart can pick up the slack.
Throw in the excellent form of ex-Cleveland Cavaliers forward DeAndre Liggins and the additional punch of Dirk Williams and Orlando Parker and it’s not hard to see a club transforming itself, on and off the court.
“We've taken everything to another level completely, from our management from our staff,” Lockhart, now 34 and the club’s second-longest tenured player behind Joe Ikhinmwin, confides.
“I started off at Newcastle. And that was a very high standard. And then, the staff was great for me, being a pro in my rookie year. I was just like, 'Whoa, this is like, legit.' I was actually really impressed.
“And London Lions has just gone to the point of this year, we've actually gone beyond that. We've gone to such a level now that guys are expected so much of. And guys don't have a problem with that.
“In other years you'd have issues of: 'I can't do this or I can't do that' You don't have ‘excuse guys’ anymore. You have guys just knowing this is our job. We need to do this at the best of our ability and a bit.
“And to be honest with you, I think we struck gold with the players we brought in.
“For example, DeAndre Liggins. From the day, he came into our club he was a no-nonsense person. Whatever coach has said we're doing, he never complained. I've never heard him say 'I don't want to do this or don't do that.’ He's just done 110% of effort.
“How he plays in games is how he plays in practice every single day. Even when we say we're going to go 70% he's still going 110%. So people like that and their character that has shaped our club in a whole different dynamic with myself and Justin, Joe, just pushing guys in the right direction.
“We've just gone to another level.”
Lions are aware that Newcastle are the only team to have beaten them in the league this term. By nine on Tyneside on opening night, a reverse avenged earlier this month in London when Williams unleashed in an 109-89 victory.
A sign of progress made, Lockhart declares, with Parker’s quiet addition so very impactful.
“It's been a huge learning curve for a lot of us, because we're such a deep and talented team. But a lot is, on most good teams, you have to sacrifice to be successful in everything.
It wasn't like we weren't hitting the ground running. But a lot of players that used to play in a certain way, had to get used to playing London Lions’ way.
“After we got to that point, and the newer guys understanding the league, I think we find ourselves in a little groove right now.”
Newcastle, Trophy victors at the end of last season, are bullish too. In good form and with a DNA that embraces games of significance.
We can undermine some of their strengths, forward Justin Gordon asserts.
“Being able to control when we can play our game and when we can do so in a way that doesn’t feed them and their strengths is going to be important,” the American told the BBL website.
“They have a lot of ways to score, contributors off the bench, great energy and size, but we just have to counter all of that.
“We know what they’re capable of, but in each match-up against them this season the winner has won the game in different ways, I think, as far as what gets us going or them, so we just have to do our best to be prepared for all of those things and notice early-on what we can do to not let them get comfortable.”
That’s entirely what London expects, adds Lockhart. The Lions are also gearing up for the start of their FIBA Europe Cup campaign this Tuesday when they will also add former Wake Forest big Doral Moore to their roster.
It helps on domestic and foreign fronts that they have got the best shot of everyone this term. Perched on high above the pack, you expect to feel the punches thrown from down below.
Bring them on, Lockhart smiles. If Macaulay’s men are as good as we anticipated, then now is the time to reap the rewards.
“Just to think of our team sometimes just gets me very excited. Because I just know how much potential we have. How good we can be.
“But you always try to tell everyone that we haven't done nothing yet. Winning one game against whoever doesn't really mean nothing.”
Here’s to you (leaving), Mr. President
Watching the changing of the guard from afar, Ron Delph feels comforted by a new presidency and a new dawn ushered into the United States of America on Wednesday.
The Glasgow Rocks centre hails from the Republican stronghold of Florida. The Don’s post-White House base at his golf resort of Mar-a-Lago is a mere two hours drive from the 27-year-old’s offseason base.
But like most African-Americans, he has been enraged by the Trump era and the divisions it has brought. Better President Biden, Delph insists, than any available alternative.
“I'm happy with our new president,” he said. “I feel like we needed to get Trump out of office. I just feel like he just wasn't a fit for a president. I mean, that's just my personal opinion. Others have different views on that. But I mean the guy's just not politically correct. I don't feel like he should be running a country.
“All politicians are going to be politicians. So I don't think Biden's like an angel. But it's best that we get Donald Trump out of office because there’s no telling what could happen in the next four years.”
Being a globetrotting basketballer has given Delph the luxury of witnessing the outgoing regime from afar. Being overseas – in places like Latvia, Lithuania and now the UK – broadens the mind and furnishes perspective.
Last season, the towering pivot plied his trade in the Canadian League. So near, but so psychologically far from home. The extraordinary contrast with life south of the border, he claims, was refreshingly stark.
“I just absolutely loved Canada, they treat everybody's nice,” he declared. “They’ve got free health care, all types of great benefits for people who can't afford stuff like that. And then you have to go back across the border, and it's totally different.
“It’s the same energy in here in Scotland. The other day, I was outside. Two of my neighbours came up to me and started talking to me. Just very friendly, you know. This definitely gives me the same vibe and energy, like how the people were in Canada.”
The Rocks have been handed a last-minute change in their itinerary this coming weekend after it was confirmed that their Sunday trip to Leicester Riders will now be screened live on Sky Sports.
It plugs the gap in the TV schedule left by the postponement of the WBBL Cup final between Nottingham and Leicester’s women after the latter suffered a Covid outbreak that forced them to self-isolate.
Delph, who has impressed in three appearances since his pre-Christmas signing, believes he can be even more effective after adjusting to the different style of refereeing in the British game.
“And my conditioning is picking up so I'm not going to be as fatigued. It's just a new league as well. I feel like these last few games, I got my feet wet a little bit. So I kind of understand how it is now.”
Whither the WBBL Cup?
Coming soon. Maybe. The WBBL Cup Final between … two teams. At a venue, someplace.
It should have been Sevenoaks Suns playing Leicester Riders on Sunday at the University of Worcester.
Then, thanks to Covid, it got weird.
Sevenoaks decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
Nottingham Wildcats replaced the Suns.
Then the virus infected the Riders camp.
Cardiff were asked to sub in. They declined. The Archers, it is understood, have joined the list of teams whose seasons have unofficially hit pause.
And, of course, even if the showpiece had gone ahead on Sunday, it would have been staged in Leicester. But that’s due to flooding, not Covid.
Still with us?
So if – and it’s a large if – the final ever gets played, who’s in it?
MVP understands there will be a league meeting on Tuesday to attempt to find a resolution for this complicated puzzle, one made all the more difficult by the challenges that lie in wait across the WBBL.
Limited Covid testing has been introduced. But as many players, including Great Britain international Hannah Shaw, have pointed out, this is an insecure environment attempting to resist a mightily crafty virus.
The practicalities are immensely awkward. Riders travelled to Newcastle and Edinburgh last weekend in two cramped minibuses. Standard fare in the low-budget world of the WBBL. But social distancing of the level advised becomes simply impossible.
And that kind of challenge is making some clubs ponder when – or if – to resume.
Sevenoaks, sources say, have signalled they are taking a six-week hiatus at the very least. Manchester are out until mid-February.
Caledonia Pride only managed a single game before they were shoved into self-isolation. Leicester, even before their outbreak, held discussions over whether they should take a timeout.
No wonder few now expect the WBBL season to be completed with such a vast backlog of postponed fixtures accumulated within the opening month.
But the Cup final is one game. There is ample sympathy among some club representatives contacted by MVP to revert to the original line-up and give the Suns their due date.
However they are right to worry that pushing the final into March might risk it never taking place if things continue as they are.
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Images: Ahmedphotos, Rocks