John Coffino’s driving on the right side with the Phoenix. Plus Boateng and Guede are London-bound. 

It’s been the most intriguing storyline of the British Basketball League – why is John Coffino here, what’s behind the frequent reshuffles at Cheshire Phoenix, and where are they going with all this?

So who better to ask than the much-travelled American playcaller whose past includes stints in the NBA D-League as well as a spell at an academy in Kenya?

With a currently-small roster that includes ex-NBA first rounders (Julius Hodge), mercurial college busts (Taylor King) and a GB international (Devan Bailey), it’s a fascinating mix so here’s some answers to the questions on our mind.

MVP: People were surprised when a coach with your CV came to the BBL, which hasn’t hired a lot of overseas people in recent times. Why the UK and why Cheshire?

Coffino: I could have gone to coaching in a university back home although I had some offers from the D-League. But it has been my dream to come to Europe. This opportunity wasn’t on the table. I wasn’t really pursuing it. (Nix chairman and backer) Andrew Donaldson and I had some dialogue and he said: ‘why don’t you come and check out the place?’

I really fell in love with it. I didn’t look down on the league. I wasn’t sure what it was like, what the teams were, and the coaching. But it’s a lot better than I would have imagined. My dream was to come over and see if I could do something in Europe. Being in an English-speaking place after Africa, China and the Middle East is a nice change.

Coaches have gone from the BBL into the D-League and even into the NBA. Is part of this developing your own experience?

Sure. In the D-League, they have a coaching mentorship where they send a past NBA head coach around. I was critiqued. I always want to learn how to get better. But it did develop my individual coaching skills because at that level, there’s not a lot of Xs and Os. You just have to get the guys in shape and let them play. But they still want to develop individually.

Coming here, I wasn’t sure what direction we’d go in, style-wise. It depends a lot on the players. But it wanted to bring in athletes, not necessarily guys with high profiles, but a group that would work.

Chemistry’s important and I like the chemistry of this group now. There are no superstars, even though Julius has a huge pedigree. They’re all even. We’ve got a balance and that was a goal.

Coffino had a D-League stint (NBAE)

Coffino had a D-League stint (NBAE)

What’s been the biggest challenge or surprise coming in?

The toughest challenge is understanding the officials and how they call a game. I’ve taken a decision to let it happen rather than figuring it out by earning technical fouls. I’m not saying it’s called wrong. You just have to adjust to the officials here.

And also, preparing for these teams, only a few have really complex schemes, really well-coached teams like Bristol and Durham. Some other teams just let the guys play. But those are the hard ones because you don’t know what they’re going to do but they’re very talented.

You’ve had a huge turnover of players already (eight overseas players used, plus others). Is that down to them arriving out of shape, issues in them doing what you ask, or just getting it wrong?

It comes down to chemistry. We’ve gone in thinking we liked what we saw or we thought they would be a good fit. That’s an adjustment. Personally, I don’t like change, I like consistency. Teams succeed in any league when they have a good core coming back every year. And when you change, the new player has to come in and adjust to the team – and the team has to adjust to the player.

But it’s OK. We’re going to get it right. The chairman wants to win. He doesn’t want to spend a lot of money to win. He’d be happy if we broke even and we won. If we do that, he’ll be the happiest guy in the UK.

You’re running with just six or seven players deep as a roster. How hard is that to coach?

It’s hard. Because with all my teams, I’ve liked to play all ten in the first quarter, to get them involved in case we need them at the end. Eventually, you go with the best five but I like to rotate.

Because I believe you cannot win without a bench because with six players, you’re an injury away from disaster. You have to have guys who can come in and sustain the level of play.

You’ve brought in Joel Barkers on a trial (who previously played in the BBL at the Lions) to add some extra depth. What have you seen in him?

He’s a role player. He’s not coming in as the next saviour or as a former NBA guy. But he knows his role. He’s got to get in better shape. He only arrived on Friday so we have to be patient with him. But he went to the number one high school in the USA, near to Taylor King.

So he’s been well-coached, he knows the game, he’s got a high IQ and I like that he can come in and spell the two to four. That makes him valuable to us.

He’s also got a British passport…

That’s something I’ve learnt on this job. Those guys are … not freebies but you don’t waste a move. It’s a no-brainer to bring in as many British guys as you can because they don’t cost you in the same way as taking a Euro or an American.

Away from basketball, what’s caught you out culturally in Chester?

Coming from Africa, it’s night and day, if you’ll pardon the pun. I’m coming from a country where I’m one of a handful of white people and they speak a different language, so you’re an outsider. Here, it’s been easier as a transition.

They still talk a little funny. I haver to get the local jargon down, all the words. But driving on the west side was the biggest adjustment. Next time, I want a car with bumpers on the side, not the front, because I had a few scrapes within the first week.

Have you, as yet, been compelled to watch Chester’s most famous TV series, Hollyoaks?

I’ve not seen it. But Cheshire’s beautiful. As I talk to you, I’m near our beautiful new arena. It’s been great seeing that and getting out into our community.

I’ll say this: I know the Northgate is a tough place to play. But I like that, that it’s tough on the visitors. It’s packed and loud. When I get opponents complaining, I love it. It’s an advantage for us.

It’s going to be an adjustment going to the new place. We’ll have a bigger capacity to fill. But I’m hopeful we’ll do it if we move up the ladder.


Boateng, Guede set for Lions den

London Lions are making moves – and this time, it’s some familiar faces coming into the Copper Box.

Boateng was a 2012 Olympian (Map/BB)

Boateng was a 2012 Olympian (Map/BB)

Long-serving Great Britain international Eric Boateng and once-capped Paul Guede have both been training with the club but are set to formally join up this week, replacing Adrien Sturt and Joe Ikhinmwin.

It follows a review of the team’s initial month of the campaign with Ikhinmwin, a long-term project of the Lions, yet to decide whether to remain in some capacity.

28-year-old Boateng, who finished last season with French giants Pau-Orthez, had targeted a return to the UK last summer following a career which started with Brixton TopCats and took him to the USA, Greece, Germany and Argentina.

Guede, following a brief stint with London last term, was last active in Slovakia but has been rehabbing an injury up to now.

“We’ve applied for international clearance from France for Eric,” confirmed Lions coach Vince Macaulay.

“But we’ve had him a lot of guys at practice here since the summer, including Justin Robinson (who re-joined Cypriot side Apollon last week). This is now the place to be.”

The Lions, for all their talent, haven’t quite hit the mark yet and with Rod Brown picking up an injury, it has left them short of bodies.

“The expectations are higher,” Macaulay added. “We need everyone to pull together.”


Lawrence on mend

With Ali Fraser starting his rehab, I checked in with fellow GB international Andrew Lawrence, who shared the same Coventry-based surgeon when he had a ACL repair last spring.

“The recovery is going really well,” he told me. “Still a little while away from playing but everything is looking really good.”

No timetable has been set for his return but at 24, one-and-a-bit seasons out of college, there should be no rushing back.


Worth a read

Each week, I’ll try and curate a few of the better UK hoops tales from around the web.

BBL Insider appears every Tuesday on MVP

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