Great Britain’s men go into the European Under-20 Championships with one of basketball’s adventurers at the helm.
He was the man in the corner, taking notes, swapping business cards, observing first, then wondering if the player on parade on this foreign court might be an ideal fit, half-way across the world.
Every one of the past five summers, while his peers were staying close to home, condemned to bore themselves in the bleachers of the exhibitionist circuit conjured up by the me-first overlords of AAU basketball, Doug Leichner would be packing a case and filling his passport, touring both exotic and obscure parts of Europe in the hope of unearthing a prospect to bring home as a souvenir to the University of Maine.
What he saw at a variety of FIBA Europe age-group tournaments was revelatory. Five-on-five, not one-on-one. “I came back, telling everyone about the team-work and the sacrifices these young players were making, giving up their individual goals for their team,” he recounts. “It was just a breath of fresh air. That’s why I always look forward to this month of recruiting where other coaches back Stateside don’t.”
This particular summer has been more enjoyable still. The American – official title, associate head coach at Maine – can still fuel his scouting instincts during his latest stop in the Romanian city of Pitesti at the European Under-20 Championships. But he will be on the sidelines, rather than in the stands, having added the role of head coach of Great Britain’s rising stars to his resume, as the side attempts to earn promotion into Division A.
This latest odyssey was one which was easy to embrace. “First all, I love international basketball,” he declares. “Secondly, this is an age group I work extensively with back in the United States. And thirdly, I love being a head coach. You’re making the final decisions. As an assistant, you’re always the suggestor. That’s a different thing. But when you’re head coach, it all rests with you. Some people enjoy that. I love that pressure and that responsibility.”
He spent seven years as a high school head coach in Florida, following a lengthy stint on the bench at a junior college in Waterbury, Connecticut. Another illustrious son of the town, already settled overseas, was at the end of the line when Leichner, with the blessing of his wife and two young children, opted to take a year’s sabbatical to accept a job in Cork with UCC Demons in 2008, giving him another pin in the map and an alternative view off the game.
Rob Paternostro was across the Irish Sea, starting out on his own coaching journey in Leicester while his contemporary was nursing Demons to a treble in Ireland. They would talk via Skype weekly, if not more, sharing tales and unloading burdens. “We’d trade results, talk about practice plans,” Leichner recalls. “And we’ve kept it up. He really clued me in on the culture.”
Ahead of his British sojourn, there were more insights offered. “I wasn’t thrown into at the deep end as much in the UK as I was there. That’s an advantage. But he’s been a great advocate for me, being able to bounce in.”
Leichner already knew many of his potential charges from past jaunts around the junior circuit in Europe. He’d bought British before, taking Ali Fraser to Maine on a scholarship (the Scot recently forewent his senior year to sign in Germany). Others had caught his eye.
Such knowledge helped him hit the ground running when he landed six weeks ago for training camp, eventually whittling down his roster to the 12 that flew out to Romania on Monday.
In the build-up, the team won all eight of its friendlies. Good signs. “It does give you confidence,” he says. “It creates an identity. It creates a culture.” But, ultimately, he knows it counts for little “because we’re all 0 and 0 when it comes to the start.”
He brings back four of the players from a 2012 campaign that was nothing short of disastrous, when the squad, according to observers, was close to revolt against Canadian coach Dave Smart and where the disharmony extended onto the floor.
The culture has been changed and the toxic atmosphere thoroughly cleansed by the incoming regime, which includes his assistant James Vear.
Significantly, fresh from cracking Caja Laboral’s senior squad in the Spanish ACB, point guard Devon van Oostrum was persuaded to return, a year wiser and more seasoned from a summer where he was an unfortunate omission from GB’s Olympic squad.
Having him will be a huge asset in Leichner’s portfolio. “No question,” the American affirms. “Devon is a marquee player and someone we look at for leadership at a lot of times during the game. Not necessarily scoring but assists and defence as well. Having that experience is tremendous.”
Slovakia will be Britain’s first foes on Friday, in a group that also contains traditionally potent Poland, Hungary and Romania as well as Luxembourg.
Four teams will progress into the quarter-finals. Only the eventual top three will be granted promotion into Division A, a level to which GB have never gained admission.
Improvement, particularly as British Basketball nervously prepares its case for future funding, is essential. Incremental gains would help but Leichner has not given up this summer to merely add to his travelling bucket list.
“Maybe it’s a European mentality or a crazy American mentality but I can’t imagine trying to finish third, fourth, fifth or sixth,” he states. “Anything we’re in, we’re trying to win. Our goal is to be champions of the European B Division.
“A few people might gasp when I say that. But we’re keeping score and it shouldn’t be a surprise that’s our goal. If we tick other boxes, that’s great. But that will be our goal until it’s no longer an option.”
Europe, take note.
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