Letter from London: One for the memories

Apr 25, 2013 by Roy Birch, London Print
Roy BirchI started playing basketball at age 10 – some 56 years ago! – after I saw the Harlem Globetrotters on TV and made a hoop from an old pram wheel and stuck it on my mother's laundry line post. I think it was the first outdoor hoop in England! I became obsessed with shooting and would keep records of the 1,000 shots a day that I took. I perfected the Mikan drill without even knowing that it was called "The Mikan Drill". My mother would chastise me for making so much noise in the back garden.

I also played at school, in a very small gym, and then at college. I went to the USA with a touring student team in 1969. I coached my school's women's team; we made – and lost - the national final. Not bad with only one true basketball player (my future wife!), as all the others were netball players. After college, I coached a women's club team that won the national cup eight times and the national league three times. I stopped playing because I had a detached retina from a rebound situation (Ref, I was fouled!). I became an assistant coach on the England women's national team in 1978 and head coach in 1980. I coached Great Britain women at the Pre-Olympics in Bulgaria in 1980 and Cuba in 1984. My club side made the Ronchetti Cup quarterfinals.

Along the way, I wrote to the BBC because I had a few ideas on improving their basketball coverage, and I was invited to audition as a commentator. That led to commentating women's basketball on Eurosport. When Eurosport moved to Paris in 1990, I started commuting there on the Eurostar train. I've been privileged to commentate basketball for every Olympic Games since 1992 and all the World Championships since 1994. When London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, my first thought was: "Yes, the host nation can put a team in… British Basketball is going places!" For basketball families like mine, last summer was a milestone. Both of my daughters worked for the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games and my wife, as one of the 70,000 volunteers, got to reunite with basketball people whom she hadn't seen for over 30 years! I commentated on the games, including the final between USA and Spain. Now, it is particularly exciting for me to see the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four being staged at The O2, as the Olympics showed what a superb and atmospheric basketball venue it is

For basketball in our country, the Olympics were a breakthrough, even though our men won only one game and the women lost all of theirs. The fact that both came so, so close to defeating the eventual silver medalists was proof that we can compete on the world stage. So exactly what does it mean to British basketball to have the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four in London ? When I read that the event was coming to The O2, I had to check twice, because I thought that I might have read it wrong… surely it was the O2 World in Berlin? But no, it was definitely our O2 in London. I was not dreaming.

When I think of the Final Four, my mind drifts back to three years in particular. My first Final Four was in 1992, when a very young Zeljko Obradovic coached Partizan Belgrade to victory. Partizan had come through so much adversity, but with the likes of Sasha Djordevic and Pedrag Danolic as leaders, simply refused to lose. Sasha hit the winner, on the buzzer, to complement Pedrag's MVP performance of 25 points !

My second notable year was the next, 1993, when most people's underdogs, Limoges, stunned the entire European basketball fraternity by beating Real Madrid in the semifinal and then Benetton Treviso with Toni Kukoc in the final. That was memorable for the coaching of Bozidar Maljkovic. Limoges kept Treviso, including Kukoc, Stefano Rusconi and Terry Teagle, to just 55 points, and won by 4. An astonishing performance!

My third most memorable year was the last Final Four, in 2012. One of my favourite sayings is: "Quitters never win, and winners never quit." That sums up the performance of Olympiacos Piraeus a year ago in Istanbul. Head coach Dusan Ivkovic called a timeout late in the third quarter and told his players to keep fighting. Vassilis Spanoulis and co. did just that. They refused to accept defeat, and many people still can't believe what happened!

The Final Four of the Euroleague is one of the great events on the global sporting calendar. Everyone connected to British basketball should feel honoured that the attention of the world will be fixed on The O2 from May 10 to 12. A hearty thank you to Euroleague Basketball for bringing it to us!