Great Britain has qualified for the second EuroBasket in a row which is a decent result for team that hasn’t appeared on the big stage for decades. What can we expect to see from the hosts of London Olympics this summer in Lithuania and on? TalkBasket.net caught up with Paul Nilsen, a basketball journalist, who has been following European basketball closely for many years in order to find out the answers.
TalkBasket.net: Great Britain qualified for the second EuroBasket in a row. Is that a sign that basketball is “waking up” in the country?
Paul Nilsen: Nope, it’s not a sign basketball is waking up. It has always been awake. It’s just only a few people in Europe actually realise it’s been one of the top sports played by people in the UK for quite some time. Qualification is just proof of a fantastic achievement by Finch and the guys at that level. It also provides hope that the National mainstream media might wake up since there is a big problem in this respect.
The coverage has always been pathetic and not helped by some elements of the media who have used their power to continually criticise and shoot down British Basketball over the years. However there are some great guys in the media too and just as passionate as any Lithuanian about the game.
Sadly, like most sports in Britain, the lack of good facilities, the expense of playing in terrible sports halls and having to battle with too many other sports for media coverage are significant barriers. Great Britain could win EuroBasket 2011 without allowing a single basket to be scored and the next week, kids playing basketball will still be paying too much money to play in gyms with roofs that leak while the victory wouldn’t even get on the back page of the sport newspapers. It’s a huge issue and it is getting better but this is only the start.
The 2012 Olympics will help, just like EuroBasket qualification but if anyone thinks London 2012 is the solution to our problems then they are completely deluded. We must attract investment into the sport and continue strengthening our venues and the pro-league to compliment the work of the National Team. Oh and don’t even get me started on the political issues that have dogged us for so long – although to be fair, these seem to be getting better! In terms of qualification, we need to be playing in major tournaments for entire generations and this is a great start.
TB: Great Britain got drawn in what can be called a group of death again. Many fans were disappointed. What are your views on that?
PN: It’s there in black and white. I posted it on facebook immediately and wrote articles about it soon afterwards. From the moment the draw was made I thought it was the best thing that has happened to British Basketball – period. What a load of crap it was, people worrying about us being in a tough group. I mean are there any easy groups for Great Britain?
If you go to a high profile party you want to be in the VIP section with the big names and getting a feel of what it is like to be around the players and teams that matter most. Great Britain will be playing against the best and have been invited to the biggest party around. They will get all the attention they need. Win or lose, the cameras will be in their face and that’s great exposure. You should always want to test yourself against the best and this is a golden opportunity.
I tell you, when I was stood at EuroBasket 2007 in Granada at a group game and wondering if I would ever see GB play at such an event during my lifetime, who would have thought we would play in the next two? If you had told me at the time, I would have said you were crazy. Being drawn with the likes of Lithuania and Spain is like winning the lottery as far as I am concerned and that is how I feel fans should think about it.
TB: How would you rate Great Britain’s chances of qualifying for the second round? What could be a decisive factor?
PN: Obviously very slim but anything we do to make people sit up and take notice is a bonus. With a full team I think we maybe have a 20-30 percent chance of making it but from where we were only four years ago, I will take that percentage every time. We could shock a few people and with a marquee player like Deng, anything is possible. We have seen that before at this level where an NBA player and a few talented players around them have dragged their team-mates through to the latter stages of tournaments.
The key will be Deng staying healthy, Gordon stepping out, the big guys doing their thing and for me, Pops Mensah-Bonsu holds the key. If he keeps focused then GB can do something. If his mind wanders then we are in trouble. He really is an explosive talent and key for us.
TB: Great Britain has several top class big men in the paint. However, the guards isn’t team’s strongest side. What should Chris Finch do to solve this issue (if it exists)?
PN: I don’t think there is too much you can do as a coach of a National Team in these kind of situations. It’s tough, you are dealt the cards and you have to play. Unlike poker, bluffing is not an option in elite basketball so you just have to suck it up. The unfortunate thing is that we do have a great prospect in Devon Van Oostrum, the young point guard at Caja Laboral but this will all come too soon for him.
Guys like Nate Reinking are fantastic and have really done their job but he is a veteran and at the opposite end of his career. Still, he is underrated and will still make some big plays. I guess you just have to be more functional and hope Gordon and Deng can put their hands on the ball as much as possible in addition to the big men. I would far rather have guards with limited talent who can do the fundamentals and get the ball over half court and into the hands of a Deng or one of the forwards than have loads of talented guards but a poor and under-sized frontcourt. I think the backcourt doesn’t have a lot of depth but it’s not like they won’t be capable of getting the ball to our game changers.
Besides, with hard work, fundamentals, chemistry, preparation, good luck and Mr Deng, we should be okay. I mean we didn’t have Deng or good luck in Poland but didn’t disgrace ourselves. At least I don’t think we did.
TB: Recently the news appeared that Ben Gordon is doubtful for EuroBasket since his wife is pregnant. How important Gordon is for GB having never played for the national team?
PN: Look, Ben Gordon is a good player and I have heard he is a good guy too. But hey, so what. Actions speak louder than words. I always get turned off by the pre-fight hype in boxing and find myself saying ‘yeah, yeah – just get in the ring and do your talkin in there.’ It is the same with Gordon – he needs to put up and shut up which might not sound polite but why sugar coat the way it is? After all, Deng has been on seven hour bus rides laid on by our hosts in Europe while playing in Division B.
Granted, I known there have been reasons for Gordon not turning up due to things such as his situation in the NBA, but the time has come for him to commit and for me, that means this year. Even a player of his class and potential value to the team shouldn’t be able to cherry-pick the tournaments he wants to play in. I would say Lithuania and London is a joint deal and it should be like that for everyone.
Having said all of that, I don’t buy into the conspiracy theory that he missed EuroBasket 2009 just because Deng wasn’t going to play. Even I am not that cynical. Now we have the situation with him due to be a dad soon which is something I can relate to as I have just went through that recently. It’s a pretty good reason to miss again but while congratulations are rightly due, the fact remains – I just want Ben to be standing singing the anthem and then doing his thing on court. We need him on court and we want him on court because sound bites to the media during the season don’t win you games at major tournaments during the summer.
Believe me, I will be the first to pat him on the back and thank him if he comes on board. While some of my media colleagues and fans will no doubt be happy if he only does the London gig next year, I can’t lie and say there won’t be a slightly bitter taste in my mouth if this is the only time we get to see him in a GB vest. I have seen too many players like the God that is Deng who have rolled their sleeves up and got their hands dirty in the basketball backwaters to get us where we are now to ignore it.