Great Britain’s women’s basketball team are ‘on the cusp of something special’.
They are the words of Basketball England CEO Stewart Kellett. And he’s not wrong.
In 2017, they failed to reach for the main draw at the Women’s EuroBasket event. In 2018, they were threatened with disbandment after Sport England withdrew emergency funding.
Yet now they find themselves in with a chance of appearing at Tokyo 2020, having finished a historic fourth at this year’s EuroBasket event and securing a place at the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in February.
Furthermore, England’s women also secured a superb silver at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
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This remarkable turnaround has been overseen by the enigmatic head coach Chema Buceta, who was first appointed in 2015.
But for the Spaniard even reaching Tokyo – the first time a British women’s team would have qualified for an Olympics after appearing as hosts in 2012 – would only be half a job done.
He knows his team still have the capability to improve even further.
The rise of Great Britain
“When you have a good group of players with a good attitude who believe they can do it and you give them the chance to grow, to take responsibility, to be ambitious about achieving something then anything is possible,” he said.
“What is important is that we are able to compete at a high level and get the results. If we want to continue at this level we have to move forward, keep doing things well and improve the things we have to improve.”
When put into context, what this group have achieved over the past two years really is astonishing.
UK Sport cut their elite funding in 2016, while Sport England withdrew a £10m grant two years later despite basketball being the second most participated activity in the UK, with 1.2 million participants.
This left the international teams on the brink of not being able to play until 2020 at the earliest, yet less than two months later they overcame Canada – ranked fifth in the world – on their way to that silver at Gold Coast 2018.
They then gave eventual champions Spain and London 2012 runners-up France serious scares at the recent EuroBasket event, proving they can mix it with the world’s best on their day.
It may be a very British trait to relish in the role of an underdog but for Kellett he believes this has helped bring the best out of the players.
However, he also hopes their recent successes can lead to the authorities boosting their cashflow so the players can fully realise their potential.
“At the EuroBasket tournament everyone underestimated us but we kept winning and each time the team managed to punch above the weight of the money we’ve got,” he reflected.
“The belief in the women’s game has really rocketed. There’s a real pride that has developed around the team and a belief that we’re on the cusp of something special.
“We’ve done so well with so little resource that the feeling is that, if we just got a little bit more support, just think what we could do.
“We’ve been the underdog and won. We’ve been the underdog with no money and won.
“Now we’re in the Olympic Qualifier and there’s an expectation that’s rising and we do need to put resource on it to get over the line.”
The willingness to change
There can be no doubting that there is some serious talent in this team.
Temi Fagbenle – who plays professionally for Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA – averaged a tournament-high 20.9 points per game at this year’s EuroBasket. Johannah Leedham averaged more steals (3.4) than anyone else as well as providing 4.7 assists per game.
The team is also full of experience, with five players – Leedham, Fagbenle, Stef Collins, Rachael Vanderwal and Chantelle Hardy – having played at London 2012.
Sacrifice and a desire to play for their country have also been key characteristics behind their remarkable resurgence.
However, Buceta believes it is another trait that has played the most crucial role in their rise – the willingness to change.
“Elite athletes in any sport, if they are successful they don’t like to change,” he explained.
“After one of my first campaigns here – where we didn’t quality for the main EuroBasket event – we had a meeting and said if we do the same the result it will be the same. We have to change.
“These women, even those who were 30 plus, were able to change and this has been very important. It’s not always easy for a 30-year-old to change things they have done for many years.
“But the attitude to change, to take more risks, to do things they haven’t done before, to go out from their comfort zone, that is a great quality of this team.”
“If trust is there, we can do many things”
Can they qualify for Tokyo 2020? If you combine recent form, the skill and desire of the team and the fact that there are 10 spaces to be filled at the upcoming qualification tournament, they certainly have a strong chance.
But there is something else that binds this squad together, which could prove crucial in the long run – trusting in each other.
“The first day when I signed for GB four years ago – the first meeting I had with the team – the president and the chairman at the time were there and they were like ‘what is the most important thing in the team?’” Buceta said.
“Trust. This is it.
“If we trust each other – you have to trust your teammates, you have to trust the directors, you have to trust the coaches and you have to trust yourself – this is it.
“If trust is there then we can do many things.
“Fortunately, I think this trust has been something very important.”
The British team’s success is unprecedented compared with their resources. As Buceta frequently points out, media coverage is minimal despite their achievements.
They were also the only side without a sponsor at the EuroBasket with players having to take time off work and make sacrifices in order to play.
“We’re not there bashing any funders. We’re not going to make it difficult for anyone,” said Kellett.
“We’re just saying how we do our business in our sport is really important.
“How we go about supporting volunteers going forward is more important because of the pressure on people’s time and finance.
“How Chema and this GB Women’s team is doing, which is remarkable with the amount of resources we’ve got, we’re just making the best of what we’ve got.
“What we’re really hoping – I don’t like using the word hope – but we are hoping at this point that we’ve earned the right to get the attention of brands or maybe some funders that just see the game for its real value.
“We’re punching way above our weight with very little resource.
“We’d just like people to recognise the volunteer effort and the professional effort on a shoestring.”
The All Girls campaign
At the heart of this drive is the All Girls campaign, focused on inspiring females into the sport at all levels and from all ages.
The campaign launched at the start of this WBBL season and it has big aspirations.
“We wanted to really put a spotlight on the women’s side of basketball,” said Kellett.
“There’s a few reasons for that – 1.2 million people play basketball and one in four are female.
“The membership of Basketball England has seen the potential of the women and girls’ game but have seen this disparity between boys and girls and in women’s basketball.
“As a governing body, ethically and for equality issues, and all the things that basketball can do for young girls, we looked at this sport and said ‘we have to address that disparity.’
“’What can we do to make it actually more accessible to young girls and women?’
“It’s not just a campaign around playing. Playing is a key focus but we’re looking to get more women into coaching, more into officiating – both refereeing and table officiating.
“The volunteer base – because without the volunteers, the clubs and the sport is very thin and won’t go anywhere and they’re really important to us.
“But also, in school environments, colleges and universities. We’re looking at the teacher training network and the teachers that can inspire kids to play basketball.”
GB Women’s Basketball is in a unique position. A successful team and a renewed emphasis on pushing the product to inspire can often work wonders.
In a year’s time we might just be talking about a truly momentous shift in the sport’s reputation within this country.
Interview and words: Will Moulton
Image credits: With thanks to Promote PR
All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald.