By Matthew Bullock
I have been a basketball fan since 1993, predominantly following the NBA. Over the years I have seen many changes in the league mainly related to the standard of players. I remember the days where most teams would have a “one-two punch” Jordan and Pippen, Malone and Stockton, Mullin and Hardaway. Nowadays some teams have four or five players who are all-star worthy.
Gone are the days when shooters such as Mark Price would put up a season record eight- 3 pointers in a game, The most three-pointers by today’s standard are 13 by the Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry, and I am sure it won’t be long before he breaks his record again!.
During the 1990s I remember taking a slight interest in the British Basketball scene. I went to see the London Towers play in an international tournament. The team at this time led by point guard Danny Lewis and the big man Martin Henlan, they were coached at the time by Kevin Cadle. I used to watch the occasional game when it was live on Sky Sports, during that period the Manchester Giants were playing games at Evening News Arena, the London Leopards were playing at the Docklands Arena and the London Towers at Wembley.
Times have changed drastically since then, and most BBL teams now play in local university sports arenas or large leisure complexes. With no TV deal funding for the BBL has dropped sharply. However, just recently it is available via the BBC Sports app and a live game is shown every Friday night perhaps, an indicator that interest in the British game is becoming more popular again.
In 2013 I went to see the then Milton Keynes Lions against the Glasgow Rocks in Milton Keynes. Their arena was a converted warehouse turned into a basketball centre at the time, since then they are now the London Lions and play at the Copper Box Arena in Stratford, London. I attended a Lions game in Stratford earlier this year when they comfortably defeated the Plymouth Raiders. The Copper Box is an excellent modern venue but in my experience a little too large for the number of fans who attend, this in turn impacts on the atmosphere a little.
I was recently invited by one of the sponsors of the Leicester Riders to a home game at their arena in central Leicester. Living in Suffolk, I am approximately 2 hours from my nearest BBL teams the Riders and the Lions. I was intrigued to see how things are developing in the British game and to sample the Riders game day experience so decided to accept the offer and make the trip. The Riders are the oldest pro-team in the UK, turning 50 this year and are the only pro club in the UK who owns their arena, which has a capacity of up to 3000. The game would see the Leicester Riders take on the high-flying Newcastle Eagles. The Eagles having already secured a successful season having defeated the Glasgow Rocks to claim the first piece of silverware of the season, the BBL trophy. This week’s matchup would be a quarter-final match-up where the winner would advance in the BBL Cup. The BBL Cup is the second of four pieces of silverware up for grabs during the season; the remaining two are for winning the league and the league playoffs. The Riders and Eagles are the two hottest teams in British Basketball right now with the Eagles and Riders holding the 1st and 2nd spots in the league table respectively.
I arrived at the arena at approximately 7.15. The first thing that struck me was the excellent parking arrangements near the arena; the nearby industrial estate provided plenty of free parking during Riders games.
After meeting with my host, I was shown to my seat as the Arena began to fill up, all the latest music was blaring out over the loud speaker creating a big game atmosphere. At about 7.40 the player introductions began. In a similar manner to the NBA the lights went out, and the two giant screens at each end of the court came on showing Riders highlights and introducing the players as the in-game announcer called their names, what a way to start!
I love all the hoopla of the NBA and American Sports in general, so that was a real treat. The game tipped off at 7.45 and instantly I was stunned by the pace of it, and it was end-to-end stuff. And a lot more hectic than the NBA. Both teams hung level for the first quarter trading baskets for the first ten minutes. The game continued this way into the second quarter, however, with half-time looming, the Riders had managed to pull away behind the excellent play of point guard Brandon Clark and took a 49-43 lead into the locker room.
At half-time, there was a competition taking place on the court where fans were invited down to see if they could sink a free throw for the price of a £1 in exchange for Riders goodies.
The big screens also came live, and they even had the traditional American sports “Kiss” and “Dance” cameras where fans appear on the big screens either showing their best dance moves or sharing a romantic moment with someone.
The food was on sale, and the bar was open, hot-dogs, burgers, cold drinks and snacks were available along with an official game day programme. Riders merchandise is also available.
As I returned to my seat the third quarter was under way, the Riders defended very well in the third quarter, and the Eagles star player Rahmon Fletcher struggled to get going offensively after a reasonable first half. The Riders pulled away in the third quarter leading by 18 going into the 4th quarter.
During the break between the third and fourth quarter, there was a raffle draw where some lucky fan won over £300.
As the 4th quarter began the Riders continued where they left off and continued to pile on the pressure defensively resulting in lots of missed shots by the Eagles, the fans were going wild encouraging the Riders to bring the game home. Rahmon Fletcher fouled out for the Eagles and walked off the court as the fans cheered as “hit the road Jack” was piped over the music system as he took a seat, another nice American touch. Fletcher finished the game with 20 points.
The Riders would eventually win the game 104-69. Star player Brandon Clark who finished just shy of a triple-double posting 23 points 14 assists and seven rebounds. Five other players scored in double figures for the Riders in one of the most dominant second half performances of the season.
As I departed the Leicester Arena, I was impressed by how dedicated the Riders fans are they love their basketball and were loud throughout the game. It was a fantastic night out with all the nice touches of an American sports game day experience. I would highly recommend taking in a Riders game even if you a fan or new to the game you will for sure get absorbed by the atmosphere. A general adult admission ticket at the door will cost you just £12, excellent value for a night out I believe a slight discount is available for booking in advance.
If I lived nearer, I would be a season ticket holder. In my opinion Basketball in the UK is clearly alive and well and increasing in popularity by the week.