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Bursting the British basketball bubble

Nick Atkin
March 13, 2014
Iowa centre Gabe Olaseni reaches for the ball © Getty Images
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It's safe to say young British basketball hopefuls already faced an uphill task in following their dreams of one day playing in the NBA before UK Sport decided to cut all Olympic funding to the country's national team.

One who overcame the hurdles is Gabe Olaseni, a centre for the Iowa Hawkeyes who has firmly established himself in his third season, leading the team in blocked shots (42) and offensive rebounds (76).

But the 22-year-old is more of the exception rather than the rule and things are only going to get harder for the British players who try to follow in his footsteps.

Devastating funding cuts will add to the size of the already daunting task of attracting the attentions of America.

Basketball, which had been awarded £7 million over four years, was one of several sports to have its budget completely withdrawn last month.

UK Sport awarded elite canoeing more than £20m over the Olympic cycle for their Rio medal push but participation levels in the sport run at less than a quarter of that baskbetball can boast.

Great Britain's men's team suffered four defeats and failed to qualify for the knockout stages at the London 2012 Olympics © Getty Images
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The rationale behind the basketball cut was that the Great Britain team are not expected to challenge for medals at the 2016 Games in Rio and Tokyo four years later. The men's team failed to progress to the knockout stages in London after defeats to Russia, Brazil, Spain and Australia, while the women's team lost five out of five matches.

But Olaseni, who made a remarkable rise from Leyton College and and Sir George Monoux College in London, believes the disparity in facility standards between the US and Britain is about to become bigger with the effects of the cuts set to trickle downwards.

"The thing you have to do, you have to go out of your way to practice in London," Olaseni, who had been playing basketball for just five years before he joined the Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas in 2010, told ESPN before NCAA March Madness.

"All across England, you might practice twice a week for about four hours combined; two two-hour sessions. Obviously that's not enough so you have to do the extras. Renting out a court, travelling around to find open courts, was tough.

"Back home in London those facilities weren't there, you kind of make an excuse, you have to pay to use this gym, you have to do this, you have to do that, there's other sports. Here there's no excuse because I live right across the road from the practice facility, the weight room is always open.

"If you want to get better you can. Over there, if you don't really work out for a week no one really says anything to you, because of the situation.

"We got by the way it was before. We would've been able to manage it because we've been doing it for so long, but the cuts are going to have a negative impact on the young kids coming up.

"They may get less court time. They may get taken less seriously if they say they want to play basketball. It's difficult to really fathom and deal with but I think somehow, someway we'll make it work, because all these years we made it work when I was over there.

"There are professional leagues in England like the BBL [British Basketball League], they have a lot of university ties but a lot of guys just want to play overseas.

"It's a big jump to go from university to overseas, you don't necessarily have to have some college experience but you need to be more branched out, like play for the national team. You have to have something that makes you stand out."

After seeing the growth the game was experiencing in Britain first hand at London 2012, Olaseni is of the same mind as British Basketball, who accused UK Sport of "abandoning" them.

"You kind of get the impression that they [UK Sport] aren't really interested in basketball," Olaseni added. "They wanted to take a step back.

"Hopefully they'll see the impact it's making on a lot of young people's lives and they reverse the decision if that's possible.

"With the [2012 London] Olympics, I came back for that and I watched a couple of the events. Basketball was picking up a lot of people, people were talking about it. I felt like there was growth in the sport, but with these cuts it's a step back, which is definitely disappointing."

Live sport streaming service ESPN Player will bring UK viewers complete live and on-demand coverage of the NCAA March Madness® Tournament. The ESPN Player Hoops Madness - a charity basketball event to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital - is taking place at UEL's SportsDock on Friday 21st March and is open to anybody 16 or older. Ensure a spot to play by emailing ESPNPlayerHoopsMadness@gmail.com.

Nick Atkin is an assistant editor at ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter @natkinESPN

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