When you think of sports in the United Kingdom, basketball is probably not the first that comes to mind. Football? They go nuts for it. Rugby? For sure. But basketball? That’s not a sport that is widely considered a ‘British’ one.
The Great Britain national team has only featured at two Olympics- the 1948 and 2012 games. Both were hosted in, you guessed it, London. Besides former NBA all-star and Chicago Bull Luol Deng, you will struggle to find a British player that is known world-wide.
And yet, despite this, if you dig below what seems to be a completely lifeless surface, you will find a blooming hoops culture, driven in large part by the next generation of kids growing up in urban areas.
According to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, basketball is now the second most popular sport played in the UK by 11- to 15-year-olds, with 32% of children playing (only football was more popular). Meanwhile, a report from Basketball England states that 12% of these players are from the poorest of financial backgrounds. This is high compared to many other sports – basketball reaches people from all walks of life.
The craving for more basketball is there, and in England’s capital, it is stronger than ever. In London, if you are hoops head and want to run a quick game of pickup, look no further than the Regal Court in Lambeth. The court is a mecca for basketball lovers across the London area, and is highly recognizable for it’s jet-black court, gold rims, and Nike branding. It’s a court built for royalty, but played on by the people.
The iconic court is managed by a local charity, the Black Prince Trust (BPT), which runs the community athletic center that houses the Regal Court, while also providing free athletic programming to the community.
I spoke with the Black Prince Trust’s community manager and head of basketball Jason Henley, to learn more about the charity and what they provide to the people of London. Henley stressed the lack of courts in London where kids can play for free, and is proud of what the Black Prince Trust is able to provide.
“It gives the opportunity for kids to put in to practice what their coaches are telling them on a week to week basis, having somewhere to go,” said Henley.
“It gives them somewhere to practice their handles. In the UK, we aren’t blessed with the greatest outdoor courts in the world, or the weather to match. So free usage of indoor facilities for these young people is vital.”
“When you look at the participation figures, and where those figures are coming from, the most deprived areas of London are playing basketball.”
One of the core values of the Black Prince Trust is inclusiveness and as a result, they have programming designed for all levels. This ranges from walking basketball sessions for the less active, to high level scrimmages that attract some of the best talent in the London area, including professional BBL (British Basketball League) athletes.
“That’s the great thing about being down here, we have guys that come down for open court that play in the BBL, that played in Europe. Justin Robinson, back to back BBL MVP, plays for the London Lions, his family live 10 minutes from here, he grew up in the Brixton area,” added Henley.
“These young people can relate to him as an individual, but most importantly, he can relate to them as young people. He understands the value of sport, of having that diversionary activity to be a part of. They can come down here and be sharing the same court with someone like that. That is unique in terms of British basketball.”
With the popularity of basketball growing, the Regal Court attracts large numbers to it’s programming. In fact, the court saw 15,544 attendances across the year of 2017. The Back Prince Trust make sure to keep meticulous records of the numbers of people that use their facilities, as well as where they come from. Henley thinks that more organizations should keep better track of the numbers, as there are limited figures on basketball participation. He argues that hard statistical evidence of high participation figures will attract funding for grassroots programs.
“It’s about being able to track who is using it [UK basketball facilities], being able to evidence what you are doing. When we are looking at going to potential funders, they are of a boardroom mentality. They want to see stats, figures, graphs. We can talk a good game, people can buy into people, but you need to have something concrete that can back that up.”
The Black Prince Trust monitors the numbers that come through it’s doors by making sure that anyone that comes to play on the legendary Regal Court fills out a registration form first. The form has basic information such as age and address as well as other fields like ethnicity and contact details. This helps paint a picture of who is playing basketball, and how the sport is growing.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a kid off the estate who has just bought a basketball, or you are a pro player, this place is open. They have to fill out the same form, no matter who you are, you have to abide by the ethos of what we do here. If Lebron James comes through here, he is filling out a reg [registration] form, I’m getting his details, and I’m recording how many times he’s coming down here.”
“We have kids from Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham, Greenwich, all of these other boroughs that come and play here. What needs to happen now is for central government to take basketball more seriously, in terms of the funding.”
The strategy has paid dividends for the Regal Court, which has received a grant for refurbishments including a new oak floor and a fresh paint job. The courts will be closed for the months of December and part of January due to the updates.
“Currently at the moment there are a few dead spots around the floor, which are not great. It was more financially viable to replace the whole floor than to try and pick it up and fix the problems. The court is going to have a real fresh look to it come January 2020. What we want as regal basketball and as the Black Prince Trust is for our community to have the best facility they could possibly have.”
Before the fresh paint job, the Regal Court had a quote from Luol Deng etched on its wall: “People say they put the work in, but it’s easy to say it rather than do it. You need to love the sport and have the drive to make it count. There is always another level, and with each level comes greater responsibility. This is more than a game.”
These are not just words, but a mantra that the Black Prince Trust live by.