The return of British basketball to European competition officially happened in September but the more effective start happened this week. Emmet Ryan on the Leicester Riders connecting the UK back to Europe
Let’s get the token reference to Leicester bringing Britain back into Europe at a time when it is trying to leave out of the way early. Something something Brexit and now we move on.
September’s Basketball Champions League (BCL) qualifiers served as the first games by a British side in European play since the Guildford Heat entered the Uleb Cup in 2007. The British Basketball League (BBL) has been very much its own beast for most of its existence, occasionally teasing links to the continent but largely being happy operating on an island in every sense.
Leicester returning to European play was always coming with a touch of trepidation. Playing in Europe isn’t cheap and even the relatively bigger clubs in the BBL need to be cash conscious. There’s also the fear of being shown up at this level, that stronger leagues can crush hard. If you look at Hibernia’s entry to the first FIBA Europe Cup, a combined side representing Ireland’s clubs, the shellackings after over two decades away from European play stung.
The Riders came into this adventure on the back of claiming 6 trophies in the last two seasons in BBL play. A pair of sound but far from embarrassing defeats at the hands of Bakken Bears, the reigning Danish champions, saw them fall out of BCL qualifying at the first hurdle but that also put them straight into the FIBA Europe Cup which makes far more sense as a starting point.
Thursday night was the comeback proper. No qualifiers, Leicester were in a proper group stage of Europe’s entry level competition and they faced an opponent with decent recent pedigree. Dinamo Sassari are only three years removed from claiming their first ever Serie A title and a subsequent campaign in Euroleague.
The Sardinian side isn’t what it was, only finishing 10th in Serie A last season, but still has players who a BBL club could only dream of signing. They had more experience, more depth, more talent and, in short, they were just plain better. That was what Leicester was staring down in a city which, despite being mid-sized, is used to seeing its teams perform in Europe.
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The football side Leicester City is the better known story across the continent, having won the most unlikely league title anywhere in history in 2016 and reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League the following season.
Locally however it’s the rugby side that has delivered more consistent success. Leicester Tigers have claimed 2 European titles in rugby, lost another 3 finals, played in the top European competition in every season it could have (save for the two that English clubs didn’t enter), and has 10 English titles.
Europe is not a novelty for this city, just getting there isn’t sufficient no matter the sport. The folk in Leicester are expecting performances and Jamell Anderson felt that pressure early on when he got blocked hard on his first look at a shot in this one.
Anderson, like the rest of the Riders, looked a little shook early but quickly focused on workrate to get through their own nerves. It was a far from full Morningside Arena, the barn takes 2,400 and the camera positioning seemed to face the emptier of the two main stands but the crowd was into it early enough.
On the scoreboard the Riders were keeping it close, finishing the first quarter level at 13-13, but they were being killed on the boards and Sassari looked sharper. Leicester had to work that bit more to achieve what was coming comparatively easily for Dinamo.
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The didn’t however suffer from imposter syndrome nor were they actually imposters. As the game wore on, despite Sassari building at 34-41 lead at the break, the British champions looked like they made sense as a club at this level.
Sassari essentially had more ways of approaching the challenges Leicester gave them than the reverse. Part of that was definitely talent but no doubt a big part was experience. The Riders had moments of bringing real pressure that forced Sassari to adjust. Still, even in periods where all the action seemed to come from the home side the net result wasn’t substantial.
The unusual decision by the schedule makers to lighten Leicester’s load running into this campaign seemed a bit odd. Aside from the British Basketball All Stars Championship, a blitz one day tournament the preceding Sunday, the only competitive games the Riders had played were almost a month prior in those BCL qualifiers against Bakken whereas the rest of the BBL has played between 3 and 5 games.
Enabling the Riders to focus on Europe obviously has thought behind it but rust is real and ballers need games. There are a lot of gaps in the calendar for Leicester were the two games a week format might prove more beneficial.
As the final frame progressed, Leicester cut the deficit to 4 points before Sassari managed to slowly push out. They had the control to be able to close out a game like this and are heavily expected to take the top spot in the group. Leicester lost 78-90 but keeping this one competitive for 33 minutes is still a good outing and offers some real promise of progressing through to the next phase.
To do that, they’ll need to finish above the two Hungarian sides Szolnoki Olaj and Falco Vulcano. The former has played at European level in every season since 2010-11 while Falco Vulcano finished second to Szolnoki in the Hungarian championship last season. It’s a good bar for Leicester to get measured against. Coming out from that run would guarantee another 6 games and European basketball into February. It would get fans in the city thinking more about the broader capacity of the club going forward. It also would get the BBL thinking because if Leicester could get past two Hungarian sides (drawn together by chance as much as anything) what if more British clubs had a look at Europe? With said ambition comes confidence and with that comes familiarity.
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