It only took 46 years but Leicester Riders have finally reached the very top. British basketball’s oldest club are the champions of the BBL for the first time in their history after a 93-70 victory over Durham Wildcats on Saturday night.
And they were tested, surprisingly, as the visitors to John Sanford trailed 52-40 at half-time before the Riders asserted themselves in the second half, Anthony Rowe hitting a team-high 15 points, to spark the mother of all celebrations.
With just two league losses – and only four in total all season – who could argue that Rob Paternostro’s men do not deserve the honour, and the accompanying plaudits?
Having flirted with success last term when they reached the play-off final, the bar was raised last summer and the Riders took a giant leap into the stratosphere.
“It has been a long time coming, but my hat is off to this Riders team,” said Paternosto. “They have been just brilliant. The fixture pile-up has taken its toll over the last few weeks, but guys have stepped up and never let upon the intensity. They really deserve this Championship. The recent away wins at Manchester and Surrey has just epitomised their fighting spirit.”
“To win a BBL Championship requires a relentlessness and a focus, and we have been blessed with guys who have that in abundance. We have never let up on the defensive end, and I think that has been what has guided us through. It would be wrong for me to pick out any player – everyone of the squad has made big contributions at times this season, and this season has been one huge team effort. But my coaching staff have been huge too, and I have to mention the hard work of all the club’s staff off the court as well.”
For Paternostro, their fine young coach, the effort required to scour his native United States in search of unrefined collegiate talent has been richly rewarded.
But it is also a testament to the manner in which the club have built a nucleus of domestic performers who hold critical roles rather than merely filling up the bench. And their resolve in battling night after night, summed up by last Sunday’s back-from-the-brink escape from Manchester.
While the BBL Trophy slipped away in a rare off-day against Sheffield earlier this month, Leicester will start as favourites to make it a treble in the forthcoming play-offs. Heady days for a club whose only recent silverware, the 1982 Division Two title apart, had arrived in 2001 when they landed the Cup and play-off double in 2001.
That brief period of joy soon disappeared. In 2002, the Riders won just one game. That’s one victory in 12 months, part of the painful hangover of the loss of their long-time home at Granby Halls which saw them threatened with homelessness before finding a temporary refuge in Loughborough.
That was, lest we forget, was followed by an even more troubled period when the Riders were threatened with extinction, blighted by financial problems which almost saw them go bust twice in the space of a year.
It seems a long time ago now for their loyal followers.
“They have just been fantastic ever since I took over,” Paternostro added. “The atmosphere they have created has made the John Sanford one of the hardest places to play in the BBL, and I dedicate this Championship to them. Some have been following the club for twenty or thirty years, and finally the wait is over. They absolutely deserve it.”
A bright new era beckons, with plans now understood to be advanced on building a new dedicated home for the club in Leicester within two years, adjacent to the county cricket ground at Grace Road.
This title might just be the beginning.
Pic: Ville @ Basketviews
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