How abdication may best serve the Lion King. Plus Newcastle cast looks at Europe and Fury reluctantly unleashed.

Call me, unashamedly, a member of the Vince Macaulay Appreciation Society.

One of the savvier folk in the BBL, a consummate hustler. Truly committed to the British basketball cause. Anyone who can keep a franchise going for over two decades, through four cities – including a stop in a furniture warehouse – deserves all the plaudits in the world.

And a good guy. In a bygone era, through a then-nascent website I edited called Britball, he was the first person we truly enraged through a withering critique. We’ve been friends ever since. There is much to wholeheartedly admire about the London Lions owner/chief executive/coach.

Except, perhaps, the job description above.

Game day: the Copper Box. The crowds are starting to arrive, queues forming at the ticket office, visiting supporters popping in, fresh from catching a glimpse of the exciting renewal in and around the Olympic Park, including a forest of cranes adding to a Stratford population already thickened by those who have moved into what was, 18 months ago, an Athletes Village housing some of sport’s living legends.

At the door, Macaulay extends a personal welcome. A last-minute request is sorted here. Clarification given there. If the Lions have a heart, it is the 53-year-old Liverpool-native gone south. In this universe, he is at the epicentre of all that moves.

But, with basketball needing a totem in the capital, many feel it is time for the multi-tasking to end. For Vince to be the Lion King but not the Lions coach. And MVP has learnt there are fears from within influential circles at GLL, the operators of the Olympic venue and the principal financial backer of the franchise, that one small slice of the promised legacy from the 2012 Games is under threat by a lack of progress and a perceived failure to make a telling impact.

Macaulay: central (Lions)While GLL’s initial backing for London’s new professional team upon its switch from Milton Keynes was earmarked for up to five years, sources close to the organisation have dropped strong hints that its status as a “shareholding partner” is going to come under increased and detailed scrutiny in the months ahead.

“They’re concerned about the lack of visibility in the city and the return the investment is getting back,” said one figure involved. “The results are another thing. I think they’re reluctant to get too involved on that side. But – and this is my personal opinion – is that they need Vince to be out there making noise, courting the media, and leaving the basketball side to somebody else.”

It is not Doomsday yet, although the greatest concern voiced is that access to the Copper Box could be withdrawn and the Lions forced back to Crystal Palace – and a wholly uncertain future.

While GLL’s contract with the Olympic Legacy Corporation specifies a priority for basketball through their Stratford arena, it is thought the definition is not so rigid that a change of emphasis could not be made.

Anecdotally, while in London last week, I canvassed a number of acquaintances in and around the sport about the Lions’ reach. Few, if any, would claim that the team has risen even marginally above the public parapet. In the adjoining Westfield Stratford shopping mall, on a game night, there was no presence at all. While attendances at the outset, buoyed by the novelty value, were initially huge, the dip has been significant.

In a metropolis this crowded, it requires constant shouting just to make the smallest of noise. Any opportunity spurned is a basket missed.

It is not what the BBL had wished for would become its signature franchise, one which might serve as the shop window for sponsors and the national media. The situation, at a board level, is understood to be under close monitoring.

Basketball needs London to make a professional franchise to work. Failure is just unthinkable.

Seeking a counterpoint, I asked Macaulay for his views on where he, and the Lions, presently sit – and what might be the state of play going forward.

“I think we’re in the top two off the floor,” he claimed. “We’ve got the best facility. The biggest crowds generally apart from a Wednesday night. Our outreach is bigger than all of them. So I think we’re in the top two. On the floor, I believe we’ll be top four by the end of the season.

“We’re still gelling. We’re learning lots of new things. I think when players come and play in London, it’s different from elsewhere in England. It takes time to learn. Someone like Rod Brown, a professional who’s played around the world, understands that. And it’s through Rod we’re trying to go to help the new guys understand.”

A sign gives Lions advice on how to improve their defence (GLL)

The Box that is supposed to Rock

On the floor, results remain inconsistent despite a potent budget. London – even with the likes of former MVPs Zaire Taylor and Drew Sullivan – remains lesser than the sums of its parts, high on talent but frequently looking low on chemistry amid a 9-8 record.

“I think we’re where we need to be,” Macaulay, who forecast that this would be his greatest ever side, claims. “This team could beat any team in the league. We haven’t proved that against Newcastle but we have proved it against everybody else.

“The way I look at it, in terms of what it takes us to get in the top four on the floor, it’s basically we’ve split with Worcester, with Leicester, and lost two to Newcastle we’ve got one against those top guys. The rest of the time, it’s all the guys below. By the time we’ve got those evened out, we will be in the top four.”

Of course, it comes back to the central question: is it asking too much of one person to be in charge of the team and the business and excel at both? One player recounted a time during the Christmas period when they reported for practice but the coach was AWOL. “We didn’t hang around long,” he confirmed.

Head coach of a team in London would be a job many would covet on both sides of the Atlantic. Owning the club is a responsibility not taken lightly by the incumbent but he feels double duty is still not only feasible but desirable.

“It’s a huge role, irrespective of how many roles I play,” he insists. “But I’ve got a number of able people behind me, two very trustworthy assistant coaches in Nigel Lloyd and Mariusz (Karol), the hard work we put into the game during the week is massive in terms of breaking down video and understanding our parameters on the floor.

“And we’ve got people, including a general manager, on the commercial side. It’s a learning curve for all of us. People sometimes forget we’re only 18 months old because I’ve been around since the Year Dot.”

That is an accomplishment in itself. A former BBL chairman, Macaulay has been the league’s Great Survivor. But in 20+years, it should be noted that the franchise has won only one trophy. In Hemel or Watford or Milton Keynes, that might be acceptable. In London, with both financial and emotional investment raising the stakes to new levels, being neither good nor bad but simply average is a recipe pre-destined to fall flat.

Nonetheless, more than success, it is engagement that is the key to winning over the capital, step by step.

Would, I asked, Vince ever considering passing on the reigns to a seasoned and focused coaching supremo, and immersing himself wholly in the business at hand?

“It’s not really something I’ve spent too much time thinking about,” he underlines. “I’m doing what I want to do right now. If I don’t want to do any aspect of it, I’ll hire someone else to do it, whether it’s the coaching side or something else.

“I own the club. I can’t get away from that. But the rest of it, I’ll deal with depending on the demands. And as we continue to professionalise, when we can get to 12 full-time professionals, practicing twice a day every day, looking towards European competition, then maybe it will become too much.”

Newcastle’s route to Europe blocked

It’s now seven years since a British team entered continental competition, a misguided odyssey from Guildford Heat that thrust the club to the verge of financial oblivion. All eyes have been thrust towards Newcastle Eagles, the most prudent of BBL clubs, to carry the flag back into Europe. Only the lack of a viable venue, chairman Paul Blake claims, is standing in the way.

Blake: frustrated (BBL)

Blake: frustrated (BBL)

Plans are well down the track to give the reigning league champions their own 3000-capacity home, with land secured close to their former abode at the Metro Arena and a timetable to move in by September 2016.

And once the switch is completed to there from Sports Central at Northumbria University, Tuesday nights on Tyneside are set to be European nights to remember.

“Right now, we don’t have our venue on Tuesdays,” Blake said. “There was a strong possibility we could do it when we moved in but that opportunity has gone and a lot of it is to do with the changes in the university system. Students are paying a lot of money to go to uni so the priority is that it is a venue for student use.

“Equally, Sports Central’s very successful and it’s at capacity so they want more time available, not less. The club already takes one day a week. So it highlights the need for our own asset and facilities where we can run everything from our Under-10 teams to Eurochallenge games on a Tuesday night.”

With a much-delayed review of sports facilities in Newcastle almost complete, the next box tick will be down to Sport England to approve a similar tranche of funding to that received recently by Leicester Riders. A build plan, Blake hopes, can be signed off by July. 12 months later, he may be in a position to green light a re-acquaintance with opponents from across the Channel, something which can only enhance the reputation of the BBL in the corridors of FIBA.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Blake added. “Moving to our own venue will unlock a lot of streams. The club’s turnover can triple overnight. There are things we can’t do now, like Europe, because we’re nomadic.”

Joe back a Lion

Returning to London, Joe Ikhinmwin’s path back to the Lions roster last week had been in the works for over a week, despite an ugly parting of the ways last year.

It took a face-to-face chat between the 27-year-old forward and Macaulay to clear the air. With little depth and advances for others falling through, this is a re-marriage of convenience.

“I had a few offers from elsewhere in the BBL and even a couple of possible moves overseas,” he said. “But I really wanted to stay in London. Maybe if it had come to the deadline, I might have gone somewhere else. But I’m really glad I didn’t now.”

Bunyan’s divided loyalties

Sunday’s record-setting 112-46 win for Glasgow Rocks over Falkirk Fury brought up mixed emotions for Jonny Bunyan, whose father John is coach of the Scottish League champions while his brother Keith is a mainstay of their line-up. And the GB Under-20 international admits it gave him little joy as the Rocks swept to the club’s largest-ever margin of victory.

“It felt terrible,” he said. “I knew the game would be tough with me not playing for them but we shot the lights out. But it was a case of getting into the next round and then the serious stuff starts.”

Glasgow now get a re-match with their Cup final nemesis Newcastle. Trophy holders Worcester visit Leicester, London host Sheffield and Plymouth welcome Surrey in the other last-eight ties.

Outside shots
The Guardian looks at what stands between basketball and earning a place as the number two sport

Losing in the Trophy a wake-up call for Cheshire Phoenix

Rachael Vanderwal goes around the world with a ball in her hands

Don’t mess with the rims for girls’ sake

BBL Insider appears every Tuesday on MVP

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