CENTURION BOATENG REMAINS CENTRAL

When everyone else has come and gone, Eric Boateng will still be there standing tall and proud.

Great Britain’s Lion. The Great Survivor from the inception of the national team back in 2006 to the present day, a link to the acorn that was planted to resurrect a quest for respectability on the European stage, which then bloomed enough to merit an invite into the Eden of the Olympic Games, to now, and EuroBasket 2017.

Friday’s Group D opener against Belgium in Istanbul will make the centre 100 caps strong, a testament to his talent but also to the dedication of the former Brixton Top Cats junior to the national cause.

It seems so long ago now that, while still at university in the States, he was asked to try out for a place in what would become Chris Finch’s first squad.

“I feel old,” the 31-year-old laughs. “I got the call from Radmilla Turner in 2006 saying that I was one of the players who would be invited to train with the GB men’s team and I was in such shock and awe and excitement.

“I will never forget that day and that feeling has stayed with me every summer and every game since then but it’s pure euphoria that the national team wanted me and wanted me to be part of the programme.

“And I’ve kept that desire for representing my country throughout this journey and it’s just been an incredible honour for me, every step of the way.”

The Olympics in his home city were an undoubted highlight. Promotions from Division B to A, the move from small town arenas and 3-star hotels to overseas camps and glamorous stopping points.

And back to basics, with every penny a prisoner following an era where it so often seemed money was there to be burnt.

“It’s been such a rollercoaster of ups and downs of just how the programme has been managed, Boateng underlines. “Sure there have been some benefits and pluses to it but there have also been some trying times.

“But just trying to stick through it and it’s not even been me – it’s been the likes of Dan [Clark], Kieron [Achara] alongside me and just all the other players that have been with me, alongside me from its inception to now, each person has put in their part.

“So I have seen it in different lights. But nothing takes away from representing your country.”

It has been tougher, he knows, ever since 2014 – and the undignified and unnecessary removal of funding from UK Sport that left British Basketball operating on a shoestring with their still-lofty ambitions hanging by a thread.

A meeting on Wednesday between the agency’s chair Kath Grainger and representatives of those bodies left out in the cold, including basketball, offered the slimmest hope of a re-think.

No promises, no guarantees, but a pledge to discuss a more flexible approach.

Boateng, a member of the British Olympic Committee’s Athletes Commission, has seen the exponential returns that even the smallest investment can bring.

He said: “I started playing at the Brixton Rec where many other players have come through. Just to have that opportunity to start my career off there … I think we need to create links right across Britain to prove those opportunities to play and follow their love.

“It’s important we stick together as a community to give the kids who are inspired to live their dream, to be coached well.”

Just as he once was. All grown-up, and then some, the old stager will have an immense role in Turkey over the five EuroBasket starters. Whatever GB bring in grit and guile, they give up in raw size with Boateng the only proven big on the roster.

Off the floor, he will exert a quiet influence too, born of experiences gained during a professional odyssey that saw him peek into the NBA during a training camp spell with the Denver Nuggets but which now has seen him sign up for a two-year spell in France at St. Vallier.

“I don’t try to come across as a veteran,” he proclaims. “Yes, sure I am, but I don’t wave that badge. I just try to have a relationship and create that bond and create a better practice environment.”

With a group of young pups in the fold, follow-my-lead is of huge value.

And he adds: “I try to bring that area of comfort. Sure I can give my advice and perspective on things. But they’re all learning at their own pace.

“So for me it’s just to be a friendly, upbeat person and that’s very important when you’re going through a growing process and wins and losses. It’s important to have that stable character amongst the group. I just try to be that.”

It would be easy to see Boateng as a mentor when his playing career is done. He has the personality, the easy affinity – and a passion that has changed little since he eagerly stepped through the door eleven years ago.

He sees newcomers like Luke Nelson and late call-up Kofi Josephs now where he was then. Enthused and eager to impress.

Ready to be Lions.

“It’s been impressive to see how professional and mature they are. Sure they’re young but they’re attention to detail in practice has been very, very good.

“They have some good habits and some good, key fundamentals, and it’s only going to get better. If they just keep working and working with that growth mindset, the future is promising for us.”

Pic: Mansoor Ahmed

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