Luke Nelson: How the family business of basketball took over Great Britain’s national sport

At age 14, Luke Nelson, a young and gifted teenager, hailing from Worthing, West Sussex is stuck between pursuing football or basketball. Both his local sides played on Saturdays and the youngster decided to alternate each week just so that he did not disappoint his team-mates but he knew that at some point, he would have to choose between the two.

Luke, an avid Manchester United fan took a strong liking to football, which to this day he calls his first sport. But basketball to him went beyond the teenage hobby and hit a more personal tone.

His father Steve was a professional basketball player for the Worthing Bears, who competed in the Budweiser League, now the British Basketball League, and after his playing days, continued his work in the local hoops community with a coaching role in the junior sector, which he has done, and still continues to do while commuting to Bristol for work. Luke’s younger sister Kyla is a Great Britain international in her right and is preparing for a first year at the University of Pittsburgh.

But despite the family roots, Steve did not force Luke to choose between football and basketball. It was a decision that the adolescent, then 14-years-old made himself and from there, he never looked back.

“Football was my number one sport growing up and my dad had to bite his tongue a little bit,” Nelson recalls. “But at the same time, he was supportive of what I did. Football though was always my preference, growing up, but it wasn’t until I was about 12-13 when I started playing national league basketball and a few years later, I decided to stick with basketball.”

Luke Nelson has grown in confidence since his senior call-up to the Great Britain side. Photo: Mansoor Ahmed

Nelson has gone on to numerous personal accolades; winning a national junior title with Worthing Thunder, winning senior men’s titles with National League side Reading Rockets, where he also captured the league’s MVP award in 2013. The prodigy has also represented England at youth level, as well as Great Britain’s under-20, leading to a call-up for the GB senior team following four successful years with NCAA Division 1 school UC Irvine where he was named the Big West Player of the Year in his final season.

Luke admits that father Steve was openly pleased that he chose basketball over football, a decision that has seen the 22-year-old go to heights as far as the NBA Summer League, where he played off the bench for the Los Angeles Clippers.

And wherever Luke has played, his father and his family have been right there with him.

“We have a strong bond,” Nelson says. “After every game, I call him to talk about the game and what pieces of advice he might have. Even if it’s for five minutes, the conversations are so valuable and it’s been beneficial to me being where I am now.”

Luke with his sister Kyla, herself a Great Britain international. Photo: Twitter.

Following his busy summer with Great Britain, where he will be on the team for Eurobasket, which begins August 31, Nelson will enjoy his first taste of professional club basketball with Spanish side Real Betis – a team based in Sevilla – who play in the ACB, widely known as the best league in the world, outside of the NBA.

“It’s validation for all the work I have put in, I have worked extremely hard for this,” he comments. “I have put a lot into the sport to make me the player I am and it’s really exciting that I get to play in Spain alongside some of the best teams in the EuroLeague. It’s a tough league but I am ready to get to work.”

With nothing but goals and a basketball hoop in his backyard that has worn out nets, Nelson stood out a the tender age of 15 as his Worthing Thunder U18 side captured the national league junior championship, defeating the Cheshire Jets in Sheffield. Playing for the majority against players, two and three years older than him and not looking out of place certainly impressed the cult basketball following with his eye-catching court vision, mixed with dead-eye long range shooting.

In 2012, Nelson was named to the All-Tournament team for England U18 at the Division B European Championships where he steered them to bronze. Five years on, he’s now representing the senior men’s side, and not looking anywhere out of position.

In Great Britain’s only home warm-up fixture before Eurobasket, against Greece, ranked nine places higher than the Brits at 13, Nelson started and despite a slow start, grew in confidence as the game progressed. He was an integral part of the hosts comeback in the final quarter, scoring a crucial bucket to bring GB to within a point, then intercepted a wayward pass by experienced Greece guard Kostas Sloukas to set up a potential game-winning score that unfortunately never came. Greece ended up edging Great Britain 88-84.

“I started a little nervous but I had confidence in myself to perform. I don’t think I made the plays the way that I can make but you win some, you lose some.”

But Nelson, obviously busy with basketball duties was still pleased to know that Manchester United had beaten Swansea City 4-0 that day to secure their second win of the new Premiership season.