Five years ago, we went to England to watch an upstart pro team try to change the image of British basketball. What did we learn? It sure as hell won’t be easy.
Originally published in SLAM 123 (Dec. ’08)
by Ryan Jones / @thefarmerjones
It’s halftime at Greenbank Sports Academy in Liverpool, England, and Tony Robertson is fiending for a Starburst. The refs are ready for the third quarter, but Robertson—the starting two guard on the ’01-02 UConn team that made the Elite 8—isn’t checking back in until he gets his sugar fix. The stash of unfamiliar English candy on the scorer’s table is inviting, but ultimately insufficient. He shakes his head.
“I miss American candy, man.”
As if Robertson needed another reminder of just how far he is from home; the cultural distance is highlighted every time he steps on the court. Tonight, the last Friday in February, that court is Greenbank, a community center where Robertson and the Everton Tigers are hosting the horribly named Jelson Homes DMU Leicester Raiders. The near-sellout crowd numbers about 600, mostly local families drawn by curiosity and an affordable night out. This is the Tigers’ first season in the British Basketball League, and the novelty factor is high, even if the level of play is not.
The BBL is the top flight of English basketball, an accurate if underwhelming designation in a country where soccer dominates and cricket, rugby and darts draw bigger crowds. Basketball here lacks funding, media coverage or mainstream cultural relevance; as such, the BBL is one of the least-regarded leagues in Europe. The Tigers think they can help change that. A night at Greenbank shows they’ll have their hands full.
Enthusiasm, at least, is not lacking. Gang Starr blasts from the P.A. system, a dance team and mascot—Toxteth the Tiger, a name we’ll explain momentarily—keep the fans distracted during timeouts, and the crowd cheers wildly at every opportunity. That they occasionally have to be told why they’re cheering is a sign of how little most of these fans understand the sport: At various points, the announcer explains the purpose of the shot clock and the goaltending rule, and quizzes the crowd on how many free throws are awarded for a shooting foul.
“It’s all about basketball IQ, and this city especially doesn’t know about basketball,” says Calvin Davis, a former Texas A&M big man and one of three Americans on the Tigers roster. “The kids are really into it, but they don’t always know how to cheer. It’s a football atmosphere.”
Davis is practically a Brit—he joined the BBL in 2001 and has since married an English girl—which explains the “football” reference. If soccer is the national religion, Liverpool is one of its holiest cities, home to two of the most historic teams in the land. One of them is Everton Football Club, the team whose name and colors the Tigers wear as their own.
Last year, Everton FC teamed up with Toxteth Tigers, a community outreach center that runs the oldest youth basketball program in the city. For Everton, the partnership was mostly about marketing: Toxteth is home to a large black population, and the club made no secret of using the Tigers affiliation to attract more fans from the black community. For the Tigers, it was a chance to expand the scope of their social outreach and, more directly, to jump from the rec leagues to the (relatively) big leagues overnight.
Despite their “expansion” tag, the Tigers were immediately one of the BBL’s best teams. The Everton brand helps, lending legitimacy to the club and drawing loyal fans who will cheer on any local team wearing royal blue and white. On the court, they’ve got a strong enough mix of Americans stars like Robertson and Davis and decent homegrown talent to compete with anyone in the league. By almost any measure, they’ve already come a long way. But they’ve still got a long way to go.
Henry Mooney loves this game. As much a basketball lifer as you’ll find in England, the Everton Tigers coach was a teenager when Toxteth Tigers were formed in the late 1960s. “A fella named Jimmy Rogers came in to the community center one day and said, ‘Anybody want to play basketball?’” Mooney remembers. “We’d never heard of it.”
Rogers went on to found the Brixton Topcats, the well-known London youth program that helped groom Luol Deng’s game. Mooney never left Liverpool. A player on the original Tigers’ team in 1968, he soon got into coaching and soaked up hoops wisdom wherever he could find it. By the late ’70s—while life in Liverpool got increasingly ugly, particularly for the poor and non-white—Mooney was traveling to the U.S. to attend coaching clinics and tournaments; on one such trip to Chicago, he checked out the midnight basketball leagues run by the city’s housing authority. He came home inspired. “I thought we could use the game as an excuse to keep people in school,” he says.
By the early ’90s, Mooney had transformed the Tigers from a simple basketball club to a hoops-focused community outreach program offering services like job training and family counseling; a few years later, he used a government grant to open a storefront space in Toxteth, about a mile from downtown Liverpool. That’s where you find him today, past hand-painted murals on the front wall and through a small lobby, where you pass a life-sized statue of Michael Jordan wearing a number 32 Bulls jersey.
Mooney’s office is in the back. He shares a cluttered desk with Donna Alleyne, coach of the Tigers women’s team and Mooney’s de facto secretary. Pictures on the walls commemorate the Tigers’ team that won a national club championship and the squad Mooney took to an AAU tournament in Vegas a few years back. A bookshelf along the wall holds stacks of magazines, including well-thumbed copies of SLAM going back to the late ’90s. “He’s a basketball machine,” Alleyne says fondly.
Spend a day or two with Mooney—zipping around Liverpool in his car, watching him at practice, or shivering in his apparently unheated office—and his dedication to the game is unavoidable. Mooney is coaching Everton for free, passing on whatever small salary he might’ve made to leave more money for signing players. He runs practice without an assistant. There is no glamour in this gig.
But Mooney isn’t complaining—better than anyone, he understands the reality of life in English basketball. He knows his best players make about $5,000 a month for a seven-month season, and that a few of them—local high school and college kids who jumped at the chance to fill out the Tigers’ roster—are literally playing for free. When Mooney does complain, it’s about the static nature of the game in the U.K. “With the 2012 Olympics coming here, we’ve got to be seen competing in major sports, not just rowing and judo,” he says. “The problem is, there won’t be any real money put into basketball.” He can’t hide his frustration at the lack of grassroots development; he says there are actually fewer school leagues in Liverpool than there were when he started playing in the ’60s. And when the government tries to help, Mooney says, they come off clueless: An initiative to build more outdoor basketball facilities was well-intended, but considering the lack of indoor courts and England’s famously dreary weather, it didn’t actually make much sense.
So Mooney does what he can. He concentrates on teaching the game and adding to his own knowledge with those annual trips to the U.S., including a long-time gig working Jim Calhoun’s summer camps. And he focuses on the Tigers’ offcourt mission, ever mindful of a community that he is uniquely able to serve. Mooney lived through the 1981 Toxteth Riots, a nine-day explosion of rage whose roots echoed the late ’60s uprisings in American cities like Detroit, Watts and Newark: an economically forsaken (and predominantly black) inner-city; a heavy-handed (and almost exclusively white) police force; a government uninterested in addressing the root causes of poverty and disenfranchisement. Blacks weren’t the only ones suffering—plenty of white Liverpudlians joined in the protests—but they caught the worst of it.
Things are better now. Playing catch-up after decades of economic and social abandonment, Liverpool is doing its best to capitalize on its designation as a 2008 European Capital of Culture. Beautiful new developments reach into the sky downtown, even as block after block of derelict row houses sits empty in neighborhoods throughout the city. Tourism is up, thanks mostly to soccer fans and the Beatles obsessives who flock to check out the band’s hometown. There are still issues, though, primarily the city’s lingering rep as a den of track-suited, buzz-cut hoodlums who specialize in petty crime. That’s something even the locals can joke about, but the crime that caught England’s attention three years ago was anything but.
Gee Walker is convinced her son Anthony would’ve been famous—either as a lawyer or a basketball player. She describes Anthony the same way everyone else does: as a polite, church-going honors student who lived and breathed hoops. “He played everywhere,” she says. “Everywhere he went, his ball went with him.” He once put on a streetball-inspired dribbling exhibition at his church, his mother says, and he loved Kobe and Allen Iverson. Here, Gee pulls a photo out of her wallet; in it, Anthony’s wearing one of Iverson’s replica Bethel HS jerseys. It’s the last photo her soon took before he was killed.
On the evening of July 30, 2005, 18-year-old Anthony Walker (pictured right) was murdered at his neighborhood park. He was waiting at a bus stop with his white girlfriend and a cousin when two young white men chased him down and attacked him with an ice pick. The killers were caught and convicted. Race was the only apparent motive. Not long after her son’s death, Gee Walker and her daughter Dominique founded the Anthony Walker Foundation, keeping his name and memory alive with an annual youth festival in the city. Its logo is a silhouette of Anthony dribbling a ball between his legs. He would’ve loved having a pro basketball team in town.
Indirectly, at least, the Tigers’ very presence is a small step in crossing the city’s racial divide. “The culture of basketball here is very similar to the States—predominantly black,” says Tigers forward David Aliu. The 26-year-old Liverpool native is ideally suited to understanding hoops on both sides of the Atlantic. A light-skinned black dude who came up playing for Mooney in the Toxteth program, Aliu went to the U.S for high school and played college ball at Morehead State. He did stints in the pro leagues in Iceland, Scotland and Spain before finally returning home last year, where he reunited with Mooney in time for Everton’s start-up campaign.
Aliu knows there’s no comparing the state of the actual game in the U.S. and U.K., but he stresses that the culture—the accessibility, the attitude, the hip-hop influence—is increasingly the same. From a marketing perspective, this is what Everton saw when they decided to start a basketball team. On a broader level, the growth of basketball—or anything else that can help tie together the fractured elements of a society—can only be a good thing.
But that’s big picture and long term. For now, the Tigers have a game to worry about. Back in Greenbank on Friday night, they build and then nearly blow a 21-point point lead over Leicester. But they hold on, Aliu hitting the final two free throws to clinch a 101-99 win. The crowd loves every minute of it, and kids flood the court for autographs after the final buzzer. The players seem happy to stick around.
The Tigers’ season eventually ends in April with a first-round BBL playoff loss. Along the way, they offered $2 tickets to draw 7,000 fans to the new Echo Arena on the Liverpool waterfront for a televised league game against the Big Storage Cheshire Jets. A 23-point loss to Cheshire did little to dampen the club’s enthusiasm; in a dream scenario, the Tigers will one day play all their home games at the Arena, rafters full of championship banners hanging above their heads.
Henry Mooney won’t be coaching them when they get there. Not long after the season ended, he stepped down from his coaching job to refocus on the Tigers’ grassroots and community development. Essentially, it’s a return to the job he never left: Offering a hand to his friends and neighbors, and preaching the basketball gospel to a country full of kids who only know how to dribble with their feet.
Postscript: In 2010, Everton ended its affiliation with the team, now renamed the Mersey Tigers. They’re currently dead last in the BBL standings with a record of 0-17.