All posts by Sam Bennett

England’s most capped baller hopeful for the future

Ronnie Baker is one of the most impressive sportsmen that you’ve probably never heard of.

During a staggering 30-year basketball career, Baker represented his country 156 times, captained England to a Commonwealth bronze medal in 2006 and played 540 top-flight games, winning eight major trophies for Crystal Palace, Manchester Giants and London Towers, amongst others.

Even more impressively, Baker achieved his success in the sport of giants despite being a modest 5ft 7″. Making up for his lack of size was a brilliant character, leadership from the point guard position as well as bags of talent.

But today, three years after he stepped onto the hardwood for the final time as a player, Baker is head coach at the DENG Camp, an annual residential camp which was the brainchild of Great Britain’s only current NBA player, Luol Deng.

It annually invites 50 of Britain’s most promising young players to London, where they are given NBA-level training and analysis, as well as the chance to compete against one another.

The good old days

Obviously every year I see the best in the UK with the DENG Camp, and some of the talent there is really outstanding,” Baker told me. “The problem is with trying to keep them here, a lot of them will get to a certain standard and then they’ll be off to the States or to Europe.

“It’s about trying to find a structure where, some can go abroad, but the game is also good enough for them to want to stay here, too.”

‘I try to make them realise that they must want to come in every single day and give 110% if they want to really improve’

Baker’s concern is valid. The BBL has been trending downwards for over 20 years now, stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy of a regression in quality, poor attendances and a lack of funds.

A 1995 game Ronnie featured in, between the-then London Leopards and Manchester Giants, drew in a crowd of over 14,000 fans, a stark contrast from the few hundred that the league averages today. “That was the peak of the BBL,” Ronnie says, “and it’s what we need to aim to get back to.

“One of the major problems now is, you get these Americans that couldn’t make it over there, that are playing for cheaper than what it would take to get a good British player. And that’s why I think a lot of kids get discouraged, they think ‘why should I stay, I’ll never get the chance so I’ll have to go somewhere else’,

“I think there would be more fan interest nowadays if there was a better crop of British players, but most of the better ones end up going overseas really young.”

Baker in his playing days

Hard work

In his role at the DENG Camp, Baker works with the best of the best of British basketball at the youth level, and although generally impressed with their talent, there is one particular aspect that the 47-year-old tries to re-enforce to the youngsters that hope to emulate him.

“I try to make them realise that they must want to come in every single day and give 110% if they want to really improve.

“The guys that make it give more than they need to, and a lot of this generation seem to think that they don’t need to put in that work, they’ve got these gadgets and distractions that we didn’t have when we were growing up. We just stuck to basketball and that’s what helped us.

“A lot of these kids nowadays are on Twitter, Facebook and that stuff talking about what they’re doing, but they’re not actually doing it.”

Of course though, there are plenty of young men Baker does believe have big futures in the game, including one that Elephant Sport spoke to late last year.

“Most of the kids at the last camp should at least be aiming to play in a top league in Europe or Australia. Eisley Swaine is one that I think will be an outstanding player, he’s got a great head on his shoulders for his age. I think he will do really well.”

“RJ Eytle-Rock is another, he’s got a good head on him and he was number one at the camp in 2016, so his talent speaks for itself, he’s gonna do good. There’s about 15-20 of those kids that I think are gonna do well, to be fair.”

Looking forward

But although Baker’s main duty is to do the best he can by the talented youngsters he works with every year (he admits he would always encourage a young Brit to play overseas “if the opportunity is right for them”), he longs to see the BBL return to its glory days of the 1990s, and believes that goal is achievable.

“I thought we were gonna do really well after 2012 Olympics, I thought this is gonna be a big movement and get a lot of interest coming, and basketball is gonna go back up again, so I was really disappointed when nothing really changed.

 ‘If you’ve got a young kid and you really do see something in him, you’ve got to play him regardless of age or experience’

“I do think the standard will improve and in time more people will be watching the game, because there used to be a lot more interest when I was playing and I’m sure that comes down to the standard being better.”

And how to get that standard up?

“It’s about bringing the kids through right, stopping importing these college washout Americans to the BBL and focus on getting better imports over; people who are really gonna bring the game up and make their team-mates better as well, and keeping the improvements being made to the coaching.”

“I do think sometimes, they need to take more of a chance on these kids. If you’ve got a young kid and you really do see something in him, you’ve got to play him regardless of age or experience. You’ve got to be willing to say ‘Okay, I might get fired for this, but I really believe in this kid’.”

But despite the recent further setbacks to the funding of the sport at an international level, Baker believes that there are good foundations in place when it comes to coaching, and an encouraging level of talent.

“There are a lot of good people in the right places right now, and the governing bodies just need to keep fighting. It’s gonna be hard to get back to how it was, but I think we can do it.”

DENG Camp is on Twitter @DengCamp

‘Mental health is massive in cricket’

If any young sportsman knows the importance of staying fit and healthy, both physically and mentally, it’s 21-year-old Gloucestershire fast bowler Ollie Currill.

“Mental health is massive in cricket just due to the nature of the game, it’s slower paced, and of all the team sports there are, cricket is the most individual,” says Currill.

“The sport itself is made of up of batsman versus bowler and although it’s a team sport, it can feel like it’s just you out there.”

No fear

Currill comes into the 2018 season ready to deliver on his undoubted potential, aiming to regain the first team spot that eluded him for the majority of the last campaign. Struggles with injury restricted him to a sole first-class appearance.

“My goal for this year is to solidify myself in the first team again, as well as to really prioritise staying fit.

“I was in the first team at the start of last year, had a tough first game, and then played a lot of second team cricket, got injured, and that was it for the season.”

But despite it being a frustrating year for Currill, his outlook is positive these days, citing a “no-fear cricket” approach, inspired by former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum, that he and his teammates have adopted.

“No fear cricket,” the fast bowler explains, “is trying to keep that relaxed attitude, where you’re backing yourself and your teammates abilities 100 per cent.

“You’ve got to realise that we’re not robots, we’re not perfect, I can’t put the ball in the same place six times in a row as a bowler. You have to accept that you’re gonna make mistakes, and just not to worry about them.”

Tough spell

“It’s the way to be in modern cricket”, the 21-year-old believes, and it’s hard to disagree. But in a sport that is, in the words of former England international Graeme Fowler, “based on failure”, keeping a positive outlook can be harder than it may seem.

And Currill himself went through a particularly hard period in his days at age-group cricket, a battle with mental health that could have derailed his promising career.

“I did have a bit of a tough spell myself mentally when I was about 15. I’ve been with Gloucestershire since I was 11 years old, and played with the age groups until I was 14, and then I didn’t get into the county squad at age 15.

“I had this perfectionist approach to everything at that point so it actually affected me quite a lot.

“I was going to district training sessions and training and it was really affecting my play and lowering my standard, because of my mindset at the time, so it was very hard to get through.”

He credits Gloucestershire, as well as the PCA (Professional Cricketers’ Association) who are making strides in making support available for cricketers, for “making sure we’re not by ourselves” with the Mind Matters programme and 24-hour helpline.

But Currill, like so many other teenagers aspiring to make it in professional sport, did not have the same level of support during his struggles as a 15-year-old.

“When you’re at that kind of young age, it is a lot tougher to get to the people that can help. The higher up you progress, the more professional it gets and also the less people there are to look after. Going up the levels helps to shrink the player pool because not everyone can make it.”

It’s as true in cricket as it is in any other sport: every year, thousands of teenagers who harbour dreams of making a career from professional sport are told that there is no future for them.

It’s a huge setback for anyone to take, and an area where many people feel there is much room for improvement when it comes to helping young people overcome that disappointment.

“When I was having that spell, to be honest I didn’t really get any professional help from anyone else, it kind of came from sheer determination from within, as well as support from my parents.

“I was lucky to bounce back quite quickly getting back into the squad next year. I’m sure there’s a lot of others around the country that didn’t get so lucky.”

First-class ambitions

Nowadays, Currill looks back at overcoming that period as his “turning point”, and now he finds himself on the cusp of being a regular first-class cricketer. There is plenty of optimism around the Bristol County Ground with the season to begin next month, with the side aiming to better their sixth place finish in the 2017 County Championship.

“Without meaning to get ahead of ourselves, and you are gonna get this answer from people at every county, but we are genuinely all shaping up really well. We’ve been training hard this week and had a good camp and all shaped up really nicely, both bowlers and batsmen.

“We’ve recruited really well, with Ryan Higgins and Andrew Tye. They’ll strengthen the side no end with their ability and we’re in a good place going into the season.”

“Personally, all I want to do at the moment to be honest is just stay fit, and get myself into the red ball first team, and not give anyone else a sniff really. After that, it’s just to keep improving as much as I can and backing myself 100 per cent, and go as far as that takes me.”

Speed king Lockey gearing up for 12th Isle of Man TT

One short quote stood out while speaking to experienced TT sidecar racer Wayne Lockey about his career: “As hard as it is to ride a TT, it’s even harder to get the financial backing.”

It’s almost a perfect encapsulation of TT racing, this incredible, white-knuckle form of motorsport, where the risks are incredibly high, but where the public interest and prize money does not come close to matching the danger levels.

Even the infamous Isle of Man TT, where Lockey is set to ride for the 12th time, is a financial strain for the majority of its competitors.

It’s renowned for being one of motorsport’s most dangerous routes. Three riders died during the 2017 event, which sadly is not an unusual occurrence.

Riders reach speeds of 200mph while weaving through tight hamlets and navigating winding public roads.

Danger man

The Isle of Man TT  draws plenty of national television coverage every summer. But it’s estimated that only the top three from each discipline actually make any money at all from the event, when you consider travel costs and the expensive habit of maintaining and improving a high performance motorbike or sidecar.

But you’ll do well to find a field as passionate and devoted to their sport than your average TT grid. The majority of TT racers, Lockey included, hold down regular jobs for most of the year, using holiday and weekends to pursue their love of speed.

“You can’t explain it really, obviously we all wish there was a bit more money in it, and it’s always a challenge to get sponsors together, but we do it out of love,” he says.

“If you want to earn a load of money, it’s not the sport for you, but nothing comes close to the thrill of it.”

Lockey, stock and barrel

Lockey and his sidecar partner, Mark Sayers, make up Real Racing F2, a veteran team that has been racing up and down the UK for well over a decade, making steady progress despite some occasional bumps in the road.

‘We do it out of love… nothing comes close to the thrill of it’

“I started out in 2001 in Formula 2, and won the Best Newcomer award in the North Gloucester Road Racing Championships at the end of that season,” says Lockey.

Since then, despite the constant issues with funding, Lockey’s talent and determination has led to him winning his fair share of silverware – most notably an East Midlands Racing Association title in 2011 and a prestigious British Motorcycle Racing Club Championship in 2013.

“Our first Isle of Man was in 2006, and we weren’t one of the big-name newcomers going into it that year,” recalls Lockey.

“But we did well enough to get a 101 mph average lap which was great going for the time. We ended up winning Best Newcomers there as well, in a year where there was a lot of strong competition.

“We never stopped coming back after that, and in 2016 we cracked a 110 mph lap which was our quickest ever.”

And despite suffering from fuel issues throughout a year that proved troublesome for Real Racing, the team had another solid outing in 2017, with the 14th quickest lap from a field of almost 50.

Real Racing were even more impressive in the Southern 100, another challenging race set on the Isle of Man, finishing second and third in their two outings — all while using a borrowed engine.

“Hopefully we can improve again this year, but as a team, our only goal is to finish every run we start and just do our best. You take what you’re given on the island, because it’s the most difficult race there is,” says Lockey.

“If we ride as hard as we can, we will be chuffed with that, no matter where we finish.”

Lukaku finally makes it count as Mourinho gets the better of Conte

Much has been made of Romelu Lukaku’s failure to produce against the big sides since he completed his £75 move to Manchester United last summer.

But against former club Chelsea at Old Trafford, the Belgian answered his critics by delivering a match-winning performance – long overdue though it might have been.

Despite the occasional flashes of quality, United’s 2-1 win was an underwhelming affair, lacking the feisty edge that had seemed inevitable after Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte spent the two months leading up to the game engaging in a bitter verbal battle via the media.

In the end we saw no snubbed handshakes, touchline arguments or crunching tackles. It was a good game of football, yes, but it was all a bit sanitised.

And for all the hype of second vs fourth clash in front of 75,000 fans, there was no great atmosphere to speak of either.

A passionate crowd can often inject some much-needed life into a tight game like this one, but whether it was United’s uninspiring form of late or the unavoidable fact that the team from across the city are champions elect, Old Trafford never really got going.

Chelsea dominance

United struggled mightily to get going too, picking up in many aspects from their dismal display Champions League against Sevilla in midweek. Chelsea were utterly dominant in the opening half hour, and Willian’s opener in the 32nd minute was just reward.

After seeing a number of half-chances go to waste, most notably Alvaro Morata striking the crossbar with a snap volley that perhaps a more in-form striker would have put away, Eden Hazard took advantage of some dreadful positioning from Antonio Valencia to slip the Brazilian through to beat David de Gea, who wasn’t his imperious self on the day, at his near post.

‘Despite the two managers playing down any hard feelings, Mourinho will know he got the better of Conte in the all-important second half’

The home support were murmuring with discontent at United’blown outrage once their side went 1-0 down.

Paul Pogba, an excellent player in a poor spell of form, bore the brunt of the home fans disapproval, booed every time he stalled on the ball despite a total lack of support from United’s attackers at times.

This was a worrying sign that the lazy, ignorant media narrative of Pogba as the young, rich black man that cares more about getting his hair cut and dancing on Instagram than he does about football, is starting to permeate even the United fanbase.

There’s no denying the Frenchman has struggled to find the consistent brilliance he displayed in his final season at Juventus. But those journalists and pundits blaming this on his entirely ordinary off-field interests should focus on how Mourinho has so far failed to fit Pogba into his side in a way that plays to his strengths and hides his weaknesses.

At least the ire of their fans seemed to kick-start the players in red, and in the 39th minute United’s expensive attack linked up beautifully, in a sight all too rare, to produce an equaliser.

Alexis Sanchez drilled a ball into the feet of Anthony Martial in the box, and he picked out Lukaku to slide it past his compatriot Thibaut Courtois in goal. It was their only real moment of a terrible half, but a confident striker only needs one chance to score.

And despite the two managers playing down any hard feelings, Mourinho will know he got the better of Conte in the all-important second half.

Resurgent United

After the break, United were every bit as dominant as Chelsea had been early on, creating little more than half chances but completely dominating the game and looking the only side likely to grab all three points.

Sanchez and Lukaku linked up again in spectacular fashion with the game still tied, with the Chilean going on a trademark run before picking out Lukaku, who improvised superbly with a half-bicycle kick that required an excellent stop from Courtois.

‘It was a side of Lukaku’s game rarely seen, but proof that he is a special talent when he is in the mood’

But the game was decided in a tale of two substitutes. Mourinho was first to blink, replacing Martial with Jesse Lingard, who would have felt aggrieved not to have started.

Minutes later, in a puzzling move, Conte withdrew Hazard for Pedro with the game still in the balance. He’d not been at his dazzling best, but his game-changing talent was evident when playing the through ball for Chelsea’s goal, and the Blues missed his quality greatly in the final minutes.

And so it was that Lingard got the winner, and his Black Panther-themed celebration made the back pages. But although he showed guile to escape Andreas Christensen in the box and head accurately into the corner, it was Lukaku’s work that made the goal.

Picking the ball up in an unusual situation for him, out on the right wing with two blue shirts closing down, the 24-year-old froze Antonio Rudiger with a step over and whipped in an excellent cross that allowed Lingard to meet the ball in his stride.

It was a side of Lukaku’s game rarely seen, but proof that he is a special talent when he is in the mood and capable of producing moments that can beat any team, not just the Premier League’s weaker sides.

European ambition

Despite Chelsea’s failure to reproduce the quality they showed in the first half, they had a legitimate gripe over Morata’s disallowed goal in the 86th minute.

It initially looked offside, and there was little protestation from the Chelsea players, but replays showed Victor Lindelof’s outstretched leg was playing the Spaniard onside.

‘Mourinho’s endless struggle to fully win over United’s support will continue in spite of this result’

Chelsea failed to create anything beyond that, despite the hulking Courtois venturing into the opposite box in the dying seconds, and United held on for a morale-boosting win to send them back into second place.

Mourinho and Conte shook hands again, and both now will surely focus their attentions solely on more important things than their mutual antipathy. The Italian now has his work cut out to avoid elimination in Europe by Barcelona, and with the title already out of sight, could find himself moving on just a year after winning the title.

As for Mourinho, his endless struggle to fully win over United’s support will continue in spite of this result, and there are still major questions to be asked over the best fit for both Pogba and his shiny new star Sanchez, who has so far looked mostly out of sync with his new teammates.

But with the Red Devils now heavy favourites to progress into the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in five years, this win proved that on sheer talent alone, they have the ability to do big things.

Bad blood and bitterness set to fuel United vs. Chelsea

It’s quite a rare occurrence, especially in the context of the modern, politically correct Premier League, that a game between 2nd and 4th in the table is being keenly anticipated for an off-the-field rivalry as opposed to its promise as an actual game of football.

But with Manchester United in the middle of a tepid run of uninspiring results, and Chelsea struggling to recreate the form that saw them run away with the title last season, the fires have instead been stoked in the media rooms, with Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte engaging in a petty and seemingly never-ending war of words in the build up to Sunday’s game.

The feud                                  

Cast your minds all the way back to October 2016, and their first Premier League meeting. Upon his return to Stamford Bridge, Mourinho’s United were demolished 4-0 – with the fiery Conte celebrating even the last goal as if it was a World Cup final. Mourinho took umbrage with what he saw as Conte trying to “humiliate” him, and things have only gone downhill from there.

Mourinho labelled Chelsea a “defensive team” in February 2017, and the following month, after again being bested by Conte in an FA Cup tie at the Bridge, claimed he “will always be number one” at Chelsea due to his trophy-laden spells at the club.

Conte retorted in the summer, telling press he wanted to “avoid a Mourinho season”, referencing Jose’s dismal title defence during his second spell down King’s Road. Then, again, the two clashed in the press in October after Mourinho seemingly referenced Conte “crying about injuries”.

The pair were remarkably well behaved in the lead up and aftermath to Chelsea’s deserved 1-0 victory over United in November, though, and it was seemingly safe to assume that the pair had buried the hatchet and moved past it. That was, until January.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Mourinho took a thinly-veiled dig at Conte for “behaving like a clown on the touchline”, and then even more strikingly, told press “I will never be suspended for match-fixing”, which was assumed to be a direct reference to Conte’s four-month ban served during his time as Juventus manager, for failing to report match-fixing at Siena, a previous club.

Conte hit back by calling Jose “a little man”, and insisting he “will not forget these comments”.

All very petty, but all of the insults and dirty laundry being aired over the past few months has no doubt added greatly to the drama of the occasion, which for me, cannot be seen as a bad thing.

On the field

But despite the mind games, football matches are ultimately always decided by the players on the field.

Both United and Chelsea are coming off midweek Champions League draws, 0-0 in Seville for United and a spirited 1-1 at home to Barcelona for the Blues.

There was plenty of discussion, as there usually is in today’s media, about Paul Pogba on Wednesday, after Mourinho chose to leave out his record signing in favour of academy prospect Scott McTominay – only to be forced into reinstating the Frenchman after just 17 minutes due to Ander Herrera’s injury.

Pogba was solid if entirely unspectacular (much like the entire United team bar David De Gea) in his 75 minutes, but the situation itself has created fresh concerns at Old Trafford – there is a certain awkwardness and distrust created when a manager drops a high-profile player for a big game, only to have to call on him minutes later.

But with Herrera now on the casualties list, Pogba is almost certain to start on Sunday, most likely as part of a midfield three with McTominay and ex-Chelsea man Nemanja Matic. United will line up with Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and one of Mourinho’s revolving cast of right-wingers up top – likely Marcus Rashford.

At the back, it’ll be up to a less than convincing backline of Valencia, Smalling, Lindelof and Young to try and offer more protection to their goalkeeper than was given in Seville.

For Chelsea, despite regret over gifting Barcelona such a vital away goal on Tuesday, they are likely to head north full of confidence after going head-to-head with the best team on the planet and making a real game of it. Willian, who looked immense in striking Barcelona’s woodwork twice before curling home a lovely effort to open the scoring, should retain his place as part of Chelsea’s attacking trio.

Eden Hazard led the line against Barca, but complained of a lack of touches in the central role, saying “You don’t get a lot of balls. I might have touched 25 balls that night, and 15 were flying towards my head. That’s not really playing to my qualities.”

The Belgian’s clear desire to return to the left-wing, plus the return to fitness of Alvaro Morata, will likely see Hazard’s wishes fulfilled against United, with Morata set to return to the lineup against the team he thought he was joining last summer.

Danny Drinkwater may get a look-in alongside N’Golo Kante, who against Barcelona returned to the destructive form that has been somewhat lacking at times this season, and Andreas Christensen will be looking to bounce back strongly after his errant pass gifted the all-important away goal to Lionel Messi on Tuesday.

Prediction

Let’s be honest – neither side will be harbouring dreams of anything more than second place in the league this season.

Manchester City have been too good, and got too far ahead to be threatened by anybody at this stage. It did seem at one point that United were nailed on to follow their local rivals home to a comfortable second place, but their sputtering start to 2018 has left them just two points clear of Liverpool behind them – and only three ahead of Chelsea.

It’s a game that could have huge ramifications on the Champions League places, one that neither can comfortably afford to lose.

Given that, and the amount of pride on the line between two coaches that clearly resent each other, and we are looking at what will surely be a tight and nervy game. It pains me to say it, but when you factor in the presence of the two best goalkeepers in the Premier League, all roads lead to a 0-0 for me.

As someone who’s paying a premium to attend on Sunday, I really hope I’m wrong.

Is Lavar Ball helping or hurting his sons’ NBA dreams?

If you’re not already familiar with theBall family, bear with me for a few moments.

First, pick your favourite up-and-coming prospect in English sport. Let’s go with Marcus Rashford, for example.

Now imagine if Rashford’s burgeoning fame was being overshadowed by that of his own, wildly outspoken father, who let’s say, had set up his own sportswear brand selling £1,000 trainers, was being granted half-hour interviews on Sky Sports and hell, maybe even appeared on WWE RAW.

Now maybe this is a bit out there, but perhaps even imagine if Rashford’s dad tried – and succeeded – to get a female official removed from her duties mid-game after a call went against his son, or if he publicly called for his son’s head coach to be sacked after a poor run of results.

If you haven’t already guessed, as far-fetched as it sounds, these scenarios (and many more) have already unfolded within the Ball family since they rose to fame in 2016.

Indeed, we are now reaching the point where it appears the actions of 50-year-old Lavar, the loud-mouthed patriarch of the Ball boys, may be hurting his sons’ chances at NBA stardom far more than he is helping them.

Target on his back

Lavar’s oldest son, Lonzo Ball, has at least made it to the NBA. The 20-year-old was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers as the number two overall pick in the 2017 draft, but has struggled to adapt to the league’s relentless pace so far, like many rookies do.

But he has has settled well, and displayed a level of professionalism far beyond his years to keep himself as far away as possible from his father’s attention-seeking antics.

‘Most parents would know where to draw the line with their enthusiasm; not so, Ball Sr’

From the outset, though, Lonzo was a marked man – and much of this was down to his father. His much-anticipated NBA debut in October was spent being hounded by LA Clippers’ Patrick Beverley – who claimed the tenacity of his play came down to one reason.

“I just had to set the tone. I told him after the game that due to all the riff-raff his dad brings, he’s going to get a lot of people coming hard at him.”

John Wall, the Washington Wizards’ All Star, echoed Beverly’s sentiments: “His dad has put him in a situation where players are gonna target him.”

Whilst many parents would be rightly proud of their offspring’s achievements, most of them would know where to draw the line with their enthusiasm; not so, Ball Sr.

Where he did unquestionably overstep the mark however, was his suggestion that Lakers’ coach Luke Walton, beloved by fans and his fellow coaches alike, should be replaced in January. The oldest Ball claimed “You can see they’re [the players] not playing for Luke no more.”

Whilst Walton dealt with the remarks professionally, other NBA coaches – most notably Coaches’ Union chief Rick Carlisle, took umbrage with Lavar’s comments.

“Luke Walton does not deserve that. Two years ago, he took a veteran team and led them to 24 wins in a row, which is an amazing accomplishment. He earned the Laker job. To have to deal with these ignorant distractions is deplorable.”

Shoplifting, Lithuania and Donald Trump

Despite all the distractions, at least Lonzo has proved himself by making it to the big league.

His two younger brothers, 19-year-old LiAngelo and 16-year-old LaMelo, are on even rockier ground as they look to achieve their NBA dreams.

Both began the 2017 NCAA season in November committed to the prestigious UCLA Bruins, with LiAngelo scheduled to be on the roster for this season and the younger LaMelo an early commitment, ready to suit up for the Bruins in 2019.

Now, just a mere couple of months on, the younger Ball brothers, at this point two of America’s most famous teenagers, are living in a remote village in Lithuania, sacrificing their UCLA careers before they even began by playing professionally for Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas, of the Lithuanian Basketball League. You really could not make this stuff up.

A quick stat for perspective: 16-year-old LaMelo Ball has 3.1 million Instagram followers. That’s approximately 200,000 more people than the population of Lithuania.

Wasted potential?

LiAngelo Ball played a part in derailing his own UCLA career after he was caught on CCTV shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store during the Bruins’ pre-season tour of China,  an incident that required presidential power to be resolved.

When the college suspended LiAngelo indefinitely, Ball Sr. took his son out of the programme altogether, although doubts had already been raised as to whether he was an NBA quality prospect to begin with.

But that’s never been the story for LaMelo. Ever since he got to Chino Hills High School, the youngest Ball brother has excited scouts up and down the country, and had firmly cemented his status as one of the brightest prospects in the class of 2019. He was committed to UCLA and as close to a nailed-on future NBA player as someone his age could be.

‘The Big Baller Invitationals have been truly farcical events’

But shockingly, in October 2017, Lavar made the decision to pull LaMelo out of school and put him into ‘home schooling’; essentially, taking full ownership of LaMelo’s basketball future, and in doing so taking him out of the most conventional route to the NBA, via high school and college.

This decision was questioned at the time, but most thought LaMelo would get back on track once he got to UCLA in 2019.

But nobody foresaw the unprecedented, frankly bizarre journey to Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas that Lavar had planned for his two youngest sons.

It was predicted, sensibly, that the teenagers would struggle in a professional league (the LKL) against hardened veterans, in a nation where basketball is the sport of the people and taken very seriously.

Neither registered a single point on their debut, they struggled for any real game time in January and have even been criticised by their own coach Virginijus Šeškus for their failure to adapt to the team’s style.

Of course, there is the argument that being thrust into professional games against fully-grown men could speed up the development of the brothers, although quite how they are supposed to learn when they are not given significant playing time is anyone’s guess.

Farcical

Ball Sr’s influence just makes things more complicated. Since the arrival of the family, he has managed to convince Vytautas to withdraw from the Baltic League, of which they are reigning champions, and instead compete against semi-pro and youth teams in invitational matches, dubbed “Big Baller Invitationals”, after Lavar’s sportswear brand.

These have been truly farcical events. For one, the gulf in quality between Vytautas and their opponents has been laughable, with Vytautas regularly anilhating their opponents by tallies of up to 50 points, with the Ball brothers shooting the basketball an absurd amount of times in the process.

‘This is such a unique situation, spearheaded by a truly unique character in Lavar Ball, that there is no real historic precedent’

And then there is the crazy level of sponsorship. Lavar’s Big Baller Brand logo is plastered literally everywhere – on the court, on the players jerseys, even on the referee’s uniforms. Videos of the brothers’ highlights are posted instantly and everywhere you look, it is impossible not to see the BBB logo staring back at you.

In their most recent Invitational game, Lavar even assumed head coaching responsibilities for the team himself.

Really, the signs do not look good for LiAngelo and LaMelo’s NBA future, as their struggle for meaningful game time looks likely to continue, with Vytautas currently dead last in the LKL and not in a position to experiment too much.

But in truth, all of this is such a unique situation, spearheaded by a truly unique character in Lavar Ball, that there is no real historic precedent to compare it to.

I would not be at all surprised to see the entire Ball clan end up joining the NBA fraternity, because so far, for better or worse, almost everything Lavar has predicted has seemingly come true.

As the man himself loves to remind everybody: “I never lose.”

Preview: Celtics and 76ers head to London

The NBA makes its annual pilgrimage to London this week, as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers come to the O2 Arena on the January 11th to compete in what is probably the highest-profile NBA game ever held on British shores.

Boston arrived with the NBA’s highest win tally this season, sitting at 33-10 and comfortably topping the Eastern Conference after their high-profile trade for Kyrie Irving in the summer turned out about as well as anybody could have imagined.

And the 76ers, despite sitting just one spot outside the play-off places at the halfway mark of the campaign, remain one of the most exciting teams in the league, due in large part to the incredible promise shown by their two young stars, Ben Simmons and the incomparable Joel Embiid.

Unicorns

As strange as it sounds, the word ‘unicorn’ is probably somewhat overused in the modern NBA, after being coined by veteran US sportswriter Bill Simmons (no relation to Ben) to describe “someone simply showing up and making you say, WOW, I’ve never seen that before”.

It can, however, be fairly applied to both Simmons and Embiid, both have which have displayed plenty of signs this season of being genuinely transcendent talents.

‘Embiid is thriving in his new found stardom, becoming one of the most engaging personalities in all of sports’

Simmons, the tallest conventional point guard the league has seen since the glory days of Magic Johnson in the 1980s, has had one of the most impressive rookie seasons in NBA history.

He is averaging 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game and displaying a maturity far beyond his years to adapt to the most challenging position in basketball as quickly as he has done.

But it’s Embiid, the 7ft 1in Cameroonian, who is the true star of the show in Philadelphia. Drafted back in 2014, the 23-year-old at one point looked doomed to a career spent mostly on the treatment table (seven-footers and foot injuries have proven to be a terrifying combination in the past), but he has flourished in his first full season on the court, putting up 22 and 10 with two blocks per game.

And just as encouragingly, Embiid is thriving in his new found stardom, becoming one of the most engaging personalities in all of sports, a fountain of hilarious tweets, on-court trolling, and thoughtful quotes.

The NBA has always done a good job in marketing the personalities of its stars, but that has sometimes resulted in a certain level of corporate, cookie-cutter images for a lot of the NBA’s more high-profile players.

Embiid’s approach to social media self-marketing may not be wholly in line with the NBA’s image, but it is that level of uniqueness, as well as his willingness to take everything less seriously than most of his peers, that has translated so well with so many.

The leaders

Over in Boston, it has been something of a return to the norm for the 17-time world champions. Despite losing all-star free agent Gordon Hayward to injury in just seven minutes into his Celtics debut, coach Brad Stevens has masterfully weaved together a league-leading rotation from his cast of young, interchangeable players, and his two stars, Irving and veteran centre Al Horford.

‘The Celtics look more likely than anyone to end Cleveland’s vice-like grip on the Eastern Conference’

In his former role as LeBron James’ number two in Cleveland, Irving was required to do little more than put the ball in the basket as often as he could, while James assumed the bulk of the playmaking and leadership responsibilities.

With his new team, Irving is not only the number one scoring option, but also the Celtics’ primary playmaker, leading the motion offence that coach Stevens has implemented to great effect.

Horford’s resurgence has been a pleasant surprise, with the 31-year-old big man leading all centres in assists with 5.3 per game, and showing signs of improving his rebounding, which came in for severe criticism during the Celtics’ failed 2017 play-off run.

With promising young swingmen Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum providing far more than what was expected of them to fill the Hayward-shaped hole in the team, the Celtics look more likely than anyone to end Cleveland’s vice-like grip on the Eastern Conference, and maybe even challenge the almost inevitable Golden State triumph.

Big occasion

Casting an eye towards Thursday’s encounter, it is obviously hard to look past the team with the far superior record.

But if I was a betting man, my money would be on Philly.

The two teams’ last encounter at the beginning of December finished 108-97 in favour of the Celtics, after Boston took advantage of Embiid’s absence (he did not feature due to minor injury) to punish the 76ers in the paint.

With the Cameroonian back in the line-up on Thursday, you can expect that 11-point gap to be cancelled out, and then some.

Embiid, ever the showman, has shown a real flair for the big occasion so far this season, and with all eyes on the much vaunted annual London game, it’s fair to expect the kind of dominant performance that he has shown himself to be capable of when the spotlight is shining on him.

Williams heads down under in pursuit of opportunity

Many that read this will have at one stage harboured dreams of making a career out of playing the sport that they love.

But with potential obstacles coming thick and fast, the path to success is rarely a simple one – a statement that cricketer Darrel Williams knows to be true.

The 22-year-old leg spinner, who spent his teenage years progressing through the youth ranks at Worcestershire, took the tough decision to leave his county, and indeed his home country, to head for the small city of Dubbo in New South Wales in pursuit of his dream.

After a frustrating summer with Worcestershire, where he often struggled for opportunities, the chance arose for Williams to sign on for the season with Dubbo-based side RSL Colts, who allowed him the chance to further his game in a land where club cricket is taken a lot more seriously, and typically played to a much higher standard.

“It was really hard making the decision, obviously leaving the family behind, especially the grandparents, who are getting older now and you never know when it could be the last time you’ll see them,” he told me.

“But it was something I ultimately had to do if I wanted to make a career out of cricket.”

The grind

Whilst playing for the Colts is the key part of Darrel’s progress towards his long-term ambition of making it as a professional cricketer, it’s not enough to pay all the bills at the moment.

“It’s quite tough balancing the work I’m doing with the cricket, that’s the main thing. The work is basically maintaining and cleaning around this big entertainment building, like a casino, that is owned by the sponsors of the club.

‘I didn’t want to just take the easy option and stay in England training and crossing my fingers that I’d find a club, I wanted to take a bit of a gamble and come out to Australia’

“It’s a 4am start and long, tedious work, but it pays the bills and supports me while I’m here as well as letting me have the weekends and evenings free for the cricket.

“I start at four, work non-stop until 1:30pm and then get my gear on and go straight to training, so it can be really strenous at times, especially with the heat, but it’s something I’ve got to do to keep my dream alive when I come back to the UK.”

It was a bit of a culture shock for Williams too, moving to the other side of the world and starting from scratch without knowing anybody, other than the one contact at the Colts that had helped arrange the move in the first place.

The Durham graduate continued: “Obviously, trying to play a high level of cricket in heat that I’m not used to when I’m waking up at 4am every morning is tough. But my body is slowly getting used to it now, even though some days it feels like I’ve aged about 40 years!

“I didn’t want to just take the easy option and stay in England training and crossing my fingers that I’d find a club, I wanted to take a bit of a gamble and come out to Australia to experience some different cricketing conditions, and just try something new really.”

A duck to water

Despite the struggles balancing work and play, Williams is exceeding even his own expectations and is so far thriving in his new environment. The leg-spinning all-rounder is currently averaging 67 runs per game in the Whitney Cup, a first-grade league. He’s also notched up two five-wicket hauls.

‘Hitting a six at the SCG is a proud achievement for sure, considering I haven’t even got one for Dubbo yet!’

“To be honest, it’s going brilliantly so far. I’d say it took me a few weeks to get into my stride, definitely. But once I did, I’ve started taking a lot of wickets over here now, and I’m averaging just over 50 (runs per game) at the moment.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be selected to play for the Dubbo Representative squad, which is what you’d call the district team in the UK.

“I did well for them and also got to play for the Western Zone select in a big cricket carnival last month, against other regional select teams, and ended up that tournament as leading wicket taker as well which was a big honour.”

Williams’ excellent form even led to a call-up to represent the Orana Outlaws at the fabled 46,000-seat Sydney Cricket Ground for the regional Big Bash T20 competition in early December, getting 23 runs and taking three wickets in the semi-final before coming up short in the final.

“Hitting a six at the SCG is a proud achievement for sure, one I’d never thought I’d manage to achieve considering I haven’t even got one for Dubbo yet!”

Ineligible

He’s doing so well in fact, that he only missed out on a chance to represent the New South Wales country team, the finest talent in NSW excluding players that are based in Sydney, which he calls “the equivalent of playing first-class in England”, on a technicality, having played a first-class game back in the UK earlier this year which ruled him ineligible for selection.

“That was a bit gutting, but overall it’s going really well, touch wood.”

But no matter how well he does, Williams’ intention is only to remain in Australia until the British summer time, when he plans to seek out a county side that can provide him the chance that Worcestershire failed to.

“The circumstances of me getting my scholarship to play cricket at Durham Uni just never really worked out with Worcestershire,” he said.

“I was only able to be around for half the year, and I think that hampered me a bit, I never really got the chance to showcase my full abilities there.”

New opportunities

“Come January time, I’m going to be sending off application forms to different counties and trying to find a new club, because I feel like I never got the best opportunities at the county I’ve been at.

‘”As long as I keep performing then hopefully more opportunities will arise when I get back to England’

“I’m getting a bit older now, but I still think I’ve got a few years in me to try and get a full-time professional contract somewhere. But I do feel like I need to be getting on with that now as I’m learning my game better and improving all the time.”

Of course nobody really knows for sure what the future holds, but with Gloucestershire off-spinner Jack Taylor recently receiving a 12-month ban as a result of an illegal bowling action, perhaps Williams’ next step could land him much closer to home.

And after uprooting to Australia, Williams certainly has no qualms about where he ends up once he returns to England.

“Ideally it’d be somewhere a bit closer to home, in Gloucestershire, but if a team on the other side of the country get back to me then I’d be on the move again. All that depends on how I perform out here.

“As long as I keep performing then hopefully more opportunities will arise when I get back to England.”

Darrel is on Twitter @DarrelW95

Rashford stars as United progress into the knockout stages

In terms of pure spectacle, this had nothing on Manchester United’s trip to the Emirates at the weekend.

Nevertheless, sandwiched between that 3-1 over Arsenal and this Sunday’s Manchester derby, securing United’s qualification to the Champions’ League knockout stages for the first time since 2014 would likely still have been the top priority for Jose Mourinho.

CSKA posed much more of a challenge at Old Trafford than they had at home back in September, when they were hammered 4-1, but United had to come from behind at Old Trafford to ensure they will finish top of Group F.

A two-minute salvo from Romelu Lukaku and the superb Marcus Rashford proved enough to maintain their 100% home record this season, and send the Russian side into the Europa League.

Rampant Rashford

Rashford only spent a minute or two on the pitch against Arsenal on Saturday, and the rest watching on with likely mixed emotions as good mate Jesse Lingard notched a brace to stake his claim for a starting spot at home against City. After this display, it will be a proverbial selection migraine for Mourinho against the Blues.

The 20-year-old striker was at his scintillating best against Moscow, beating the usually robust pairing of Vasili Berezutskiy and Sergey Ignashevich almost at will and acting as the spearhead of United’s attack despite the presence of his £85m partner.

It was Rashford who sparked the game into life in the third minute, racing onto a through ball from Lukaku before striking the foot of the post with Igor Akinfeev in the Moscow goal well beaten.

Ten minutes later, he forced the keeper into a smart save down to his left after being teed up by Juan Mata.

Sucker punch

It was then time for another young Englishman to come close to breaking the deadlock.

‘It took United a while to get going again after the restart, but when they finally kicked into gear, they blew CSKA away’

Luke Shaw, something of a forgotten man at Old Trafford after a seemingly never-ending battle with injuries (and at times, his own manager), came close to marking his first start in over 200 days with a sumptuous goal when he met Antonio Valencia’s cross on the volley, only to be denied by an impressive reflex stop from Akinfeev.

The rebound fell at the feet of Lukaku, but it didn’t even seem to surprise the Old Trafford faithful when the Belgian striker could only find Akinfeev’s gloves from a couple of yards out.

As half-time approached, it was time for United to receive a dose of the medicine they had given to Arsenal at the weekend. CSKA had created very little in the first half, but they caught Shaw napping to play Mario Fernandes in down the right side, who picked out Vitinho on the edge of the box with his pull-back.

The Brazilian struck at goal, but despite his best efforts to get out of the way the ball hit Alan Dzagoev, standing in what appeared to be an offside position, before nestling in the corner of the net.

Even the CSKA players took a moment before celebrating, but the decision was indeed the correct one as Daley Blind, who had slid off the pitch in an attempt to block the initial cross, was playing Dzagoev onside.

Like London buses

It took United a while to get going again after the restart, but when they finally kicked into gear, they blew CSKA away.

In truth, Paul Pogba wholly underwhelmed in his final game before beginning a three-match suspension after being sent off at Arsenal.

However, he did offer the fans a glimpse of what they’ll be missing for the 64th minute equaliser, chipping an inch-perfect ball into the path of Lukaku, who easily held off Vasin before poking a volley past the stranded Akinfeev to level the score.

There are some United supporters who are yet to fully warm to the big Belgian, but his decision to immediately grab the ball out of the net and run back to kick-off United’s search for a winner, in lieu of any celebration, goes firmly along with the philosophy of the club and should be noted.

And so it was that just a minute later, there was a reason to celebrate for United.

Moscow, still scrambling after the first goal, failed to clear a hopeful long ball, and Mata showed his flair for the creative by chesting and volleying a perfectly weighted through ball into the path of the rampant Rashford, who buried his left-footed strike into the far corner to complete the comeback.

‘Strong reaction’

Most would expect the away support to be disgruntled, watching their side throw away a lead in a little under three minutes, but the Moscow fans instead whipped off their shirts in unison.

Maybe they were making a point about it being positively tropical compared to what they are used to in Moscow. Brave but a bit pointless.

After making six changes to his side for the game, Mourinho declared himself pleased with the performance.

“In the second half, we had that strong reaction, we really didn’t want to lose the match and I think the boys played professionally. I was pleased with the attitude of the players. They had pride to play.”

But despite securing qualification ahead of second-placed FC Basel, Mourinho refused to speculate on the identity of United’s last-16 opponent, instead saying he wanted to “shut up and forget about it”.

“I think it doesn’t matter which team we get in the draw – I don’t think that team will be jumping with happiness to play against us.”

Swaine hopes to live his American dream – with help from dad

For any basketball fan in 2017, the mention of a father-and-son basketball duo instantly conjures up thoughts of the much-discussed Los Angeles Laker Lonzo Ball and his outspoken father Lavar. 

But on our own shores, and away from all the hoopla, there is a father-son combo making headway for themselves – without the controversial antics of Lavar and his sons.

One of British basketball’s top prospects, 18-year-old 6″3 guard Eisley Swaine of NBL D1’s Bradford Dragons recently committed early to link up with Northwestern Oklahoma State University in 2018, a decision that his father, ex-England international Jason, helped play a part in.

Committing

The younger Swaine has been one to watch for several years now, making the Basketball England U17s squad and twice attending the prestigious DENG Camp, an invitation-only training camp put on by British NBA star Luol Deng each summer for the top 50 young talents in UK basketball.

This not only provides an excellent learning experience for those involved, but also an opportunity for NCAA college scouts and coaches to discover prospects such as Swaine.

“It’s a massive deal for me. I always say the best three years of my basketball career, or my basketball life, no question was being able to play on the same team with him at Bradford Dragons”

“From the start of being recruited, the coach [of Northwestern, Shawn Dirden] was very forward and he came across as a really good guy,” Eisley says. “I spoke to my dad a lot about it because he plays a big part in a lot of the things I do and I have a lot of respect for him, and he advised me a lot throughout the process.

“He has a lot of experience in the game, he’s worked with a lot of people and obviously I’m only young. But even though he helped me a lot, he didn’t take control, he still let me make my own decision.

“From the start I was treated well by the coach at Northwestern (an NCAA Division II outfit), I felt wanted, and I just feel like it was the right situation for me.”

Now 41, Jason is in the latter stages of his illustrious career, during which he represented England on the international stage more than 25 times (including at two FIBA European Championships), and won the BBL League Trophy with the Sheffield Sharks in 1999, and he left the Dragons at the end of last season, the club where Eisley has made his name.

This crossing of paths, with Jason in the twilight of his playing days and Eisley at the beginning of his, allowed the pair to become the first NBL father and son duo to take the court together, a special moment for Jason.

Mentor

And like any good father, Jason has tried to pass on to his son some of the knowledge he gained during his 20 year basketball career.

“Physically, we’re slightly different as players, but I feel like mentally the mindset of always wanting to get better, always being focused out there and staying a play ahead, is something that he’s taught me from a really young age” said Eisley.

Jason added: “Eisley is a totally different player than I am, and a much better player than I am now. He has the same sort of feel for the game that I have, but I think with a lot of kids, the mindset of being able to take criticism and the challenges put in front of you and the need to stay confident, I continue to ask that of him.

“A lot of young kids are missing that today, and as a culture we are a bit soft. That’s the main thing I hopefully have passed on to him, and that’s not so much basketball related than it is just life.”

And having experienced so much through his storied career, Jason was also in a position to help advise Eisley on his decision to play overseas.

“The decision to be able to commit this early was a big thing. I knew the coach through a few people, and that meant I could sort of assess Eisley’s situation there and the sort of people he was going to be dealing with, and that was a good thing.

“We were able to assess a lot of different schools and speak to a lot of coaches and think really deeply into it. We thought at the end of the day the situation at Northwestern was a good fit and we didn’t want to turn that down, so I’m more than happy with him going there.”

American dream

Eisley will play out the remainder of the season in the UK, playing for the Dragons, as well as Queen Ethelburga’s College in York, before joining up with the NWOSU Rangers in the summer of 2018, and he is understandably eager to get started.

“I’m just looking forward to the change, I think it’s a big step and its always been a dream of mine”, the 6”3 guard said. “I can’t wait to go out there and meet the competition head on, to play hard and just compete every single day, work on my skills and improve. Hopefully I can come out of it individually as a better player, but I just want to help the team.

“The coach is very positive and I feel like once I’m out there and I can get used to the style of play, my teammates and just get to grips with everything, I can really start to improve and we can compete with the teams around us. The coach is talking about championships and it’s something I really hope we can do.”

Jason, who has now turned his attention to Masters’ basketball, is far too humble to make any brazen, Lavar Ball-like predictions that have got his son Lonzo into so much trouble over in Los Angeles. Instead, his focus for Eisley is much more simple.

“I just hope he lives his dream really, like any parent should want for their kids, just to do what he wants to do and be successful and just keep the same character that he’s always had. It’s tough being placed in such a different situation, it’s easy to change at times because people are easily swayed, but I just want him to get the best out of his life really.”

Eisley Swaine in on Instagram @eisley8