IF YOU CAN STAND THE HEAT …

Guildford Heat’s rookie coach reveals the journey that has taken him out of Africa, paying his dues at every turn.

Growing up in Harare, Creon Raftopoulos observed at close hand the divisions which pulled Zimbabwe apart, a time in which political upheaval brought radical change to the country and which would lead many who had been born and raised there to depart in search of sanctuary abroad.

There had never been apartheid here as there was in neighbouring South Africa, at least not officially. Yet post-independence, the colour of a man’s skin became a determining factor in his daily life. Rhodesia – which had been ruled by a white colonial elite – replaced by a new nation ruled by a government whose own racial policies and military interventions would, in time, become the subject of international revulsion.

Sanctions followed, many of which exist to the present day, forcing many leading sportsmen and women to emigrate to foreign lands, where they could eventually compete under their adopted flags of convenience. This was a place where even a simple game was rarely detached from the drama unfolding around it.

However, Guildford Heat’s new head coach also witnessed sport’s potential to unify, rather than separate. And through the basketballing endeavours of his father Kimon, he had been immersed from an early age in a world where boundaries had been broken down to the point where they mattered less, if at all.

“My father was the first non-white to play for Rhodesia,” Raftopoulos outlines. “He was so good that they flew him in all over the place, even when the war was going on. They’d fly him from one army barracks to another. That was his job.

“As I grew up, those things went away, the issue that only the whites could do this, only the blacks could do that, and the coloureds could do something else. I was fortunate that in my school, you had everyone: white, Asian, black, and that helped us a lot.”

Prince Edward High School has long been a cauldron for excellence on and off the fields of play.  Golfers Nick Price and Mark McNulty were past pupils. So too Ian Robertson and Brian Murphy of rugby fame as well as cricketers Graeme Hick, Duncan Fletcher and Trevor Penney.

“Zimbabwe has produced a lot of great athletes but many of them, especially the cricketers and rugby players, represented South Africa or England,” Raftopoulos acknowledges.

“But they came out of that system. One of the problems we have here in the UK is getting into the high schools. Whereas there, high school basketball, cricket and rugby are of the highest calibre.”

Basketball was the family business. His father would become Commissioner of the Zimbabwean League after his retirement from playing while his mother Juliette, who was also capped for Rhodesia, would end up coaching the women’s national team.

Their son would follow in their footsteps, becoming an international in his own right, soaking up knowledge from at home and abroad. “We were lucky in that we had a lot of American coaches come in, and also Yugoslav coaches,” he reveals.

“There was a good mix which helped us go forward. But we never qualified for the really big tournaments because we were always in Angola’s group and it’s the national sport there. They’re the African powerhouse and we never could get past them.”

Mike Martin is among Raftopoulos' star players in Guildford.

Travelling with his compatriots gave the young Raftopoulos a taste for exploring his options in new lands. In 2001, an agent got him a try-out in the UK, where ancestral connections meant he could play without a work permit.

Teesside Mohawks, then helmed by Tony Hanson, brought him in for a try-out. One scrimmage game, one injury, and his hopes of an immediate impact were foiled. But by then, he had already developed a real fascination with coaching. A spell working with the club’s basketball academy followed. “We came in there together,” recalls Glasgow Rocks guard EJ Harrison. “Creon was always working, trying to do something.”

In reality, Raftopoulos remembers his self-education process starting before he arrived on British shores. It wasn’t easy to get hold of game tapes in Zimbabwe, he admits. It often involved a huge effort just to acquire a grainy VHS.

“When I used to watch myself, in those short shorts, I could have a good laugh seeing it,” he laughs. “But it all sunk in.  You have to start somewhere. My whole journey has got me to this point.”

It has been a long and winding road to the BBL and Guildford, thankless spells formulating his ideas and putting them into practice at under-age level, and then in the testing ground of the lower-tier English League. His approach has varied little, he claims, even if his knowledge has increased. Studying the likes of Bobby Knight, he has picked up the little psychological tricks that can help a player win the mind games against himself. And help the rookie professional coach win the ball games against the opposition.

“So the same basketball I coached at Under-20, I’ve brought into the BBL,” the 36-year-old proclaims. “It’s the same fundamentals: respect, having guys who will be there on time and be professional at all times. I feel that I can coach in this league as long as I have the respect of the players. If I feel I don’t have their respect, then I’ll be there first person to say ‘it’s time for me to take a back seat’.

“One of the first things I did (at Guildford) was to get a feel for the bigger guys on the team: Mike Martin and Julius Joseph. They’ve been in the game for a long time. We have guys coming out of good colleges here but I feel I have all the respect I need.

“I came in, there were no questions, I set the ground rules, and we can sit and have a conversation. Its not ‘my way or the highway’ but we all respect each other.”

Upon his promotion from youth development officer to head coach, many Guildford fans – in fact, much of the BBL – declared ‘Creon Who?’ That’s fine, he laughs. Reputations are not built in a day. In his favour, at least, was that he took over from Chad McKnight, who turned the Heat from contenders to failures in his sole season at the helm.

Steve Bucknall provided insights for the new Heat coach

Raftopoulos was no stranger to the league. “I’ve always watched the BBL,” he confirms. “One of the guys I admired last year was Dave Titmuss. He could work with any team and get something out of it. But it goes back to the fundamentals. BBL teams go end to end for three quarters and then try and play defence in the fourth, similar to the NBA. If I can get my guys to play 2-3 quarters of defence, we might have a chance of winning every single game.”

Nor, even now, is he afraid to try something new or seek knowledge elsewhere, he adds. “I’ll talk to an Under-12 coach to ask ‘why did you do that?’ just to see his logic. I speak a lot to Tony Hanson who I spent a lot of time with on Teesside. I speak to Steve Bucknall.

“And before applying for the job, I also spent endless hours discussing with Paul Douglas about what BBL players’ attitudes would be to a college-style practice programme. Those are the three people I chatted to and asked ‘this is the deal, what do you think?’ They all thought I should do it. That’s why I threw my name in.”

Already, he has won admirers. “What I like about Creon is that he has no other agenda other than to coach,” observes one rival BBL playcaller. EJ Harrison, now a long-time friend, is effusive about the path that Raftopoulos has taken. “He’s had to pay his dues,” the American states. “He put in the time in the lower leagues before getting his shot.”

Hiring any untested coach is a gamble. With McKnight, the Heat rolled the dice and lost. Now, they are betting on a fresh face with plenty of ideas but no proven record at the professional level.

Raftopoulos knows he can open doors – or push them closed – with his accomplishments on the sideline. “If people are to want to get to the next level, they are probably going to look at me and go ‘there is someone who has gone through Under-18, under-20, Division 2, Division 1, and who is now in the BBL’. Not being competitive or not having a team show what I like to play would be a huge disappointment.”

He intends to ensure that it will be anything but. A BBL Trophy semi-final and a positive start in the league have provided seeds of hope in Surrey. There are a lot of games left to be played, Raftopoulos declares. But having toiled to get here, he is savouring every opportunity to make his mark.

“The BBL is the biggest show in British basketball so when the games start, the music’s going, the goose bumps are up, and you think: ‘I’m here’. I am proud of the achievement and I’m happy of going on a journey through different levels. I got endless amounts of emails from coaches in the UK who were going ‘it’s great, you’ve got your chance’. So I want to make the best of it.”

All he wanted was a shot. Now Raftopoulos has it. To prolong his tenure, the Zimbabwean will have to bring disparate souls together and help them flourish in unison when the pressure is on.

Just as well it is a role which he has long been intimately acquainted with.

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