LIONS VET LARKAI WANTS A HOME RUN

Flo Larkai is a prophet with too little honour in his own land.

What happens when you take the bold step of venturing, largely undetected, off the main grid, eschewing the familiar for the exotic and the experience.

Few British players have headed overseas and landed championships. Subtract the ferocious female pairing of Leedham and Fagbenle and the current generation has recouped little.

The list of those who have scored three, however, is even more frighteningly small. Yet the forward, still a high-flying, all-scrapping forward at the age of 36, will be going for the fourth title of his career on Sunday when London Lions try to knock off treble-chasing Leicester Riders in the BBL Playoff final at The 02 Arena (Freesports, 4pm).

The previous trio came in Japan where he initially took a mid-season punt to leave Everton Tigers in 2010 to journey to Hamamatsu, a city of three-quarters of a million in the south of Japan.

Like so many clubs in the J-League, the local team was a company offshoot, in this case from a machine parts conglomerate. They needed to re-tool with an additional player. He inhaled and stepped aboard the plane.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he told me a few months later. “But it was great. Different. Walking down the street, they notice you right? But it’s really good fun.”

The reflection now it no different, he grins. “Japan was a larger scale. It’s huge over there.” Especially when Hamamatsu brought home back-to-back championships before he was lured to their rivals, Okinawa Golden Kings, and made it a personal three-peat.

But then, he recounts, “I came home, and nobody knew. You might have been the only person that knew. But I won three over there and nobody really knows.” Which is why this run with London, not far from where he grew up, has proven special.

“This one means more because it’s in front of friends and family,” he affirms. “It feels good that I’m at home, doing something that people will see. And if we win, they’ll see it.”

It almost didn’t happen. For the first half of this campaign, Larkai was content to count the yen and focus on his graduate study at the University of East London.

He had a sports scholarship for his Masters in Sports and Exercise Science. Obligations to keep playing, for the UEL team in BUCS competition, but nothing as strenuous as the major leagues. Career, to all intents and purposes, done and dusted and happily so.

“But then I start to see I’m still moving,” he smiles. “The young guys are going ‘Flo, what are you doing? Why aren’t you out there playing at a high level?’ I kept listening to people saying ‘ you’re old, you’ve got bad knees’.

“I thought, ‘you know what? Let’s give it a go.’ They (Lions) got in touch and said ‘just come to practice.’ And off it went.”

It was February when he signed on. Another mid-season punt.

“It did feel good. I always wanted to come home and try and establish something. As soon as Justin (Robinson) signed, it felt like something I wanted to do.

“We were kind of working towards it. I’m in London for at least two years. It’s a happy feeling right now. I know not a lot of guys get to be in this position.”

The Lions den he leapt into was very different to the emboldened one that has a real chance to knock off Leicester.

Prior to his arrival came the tumult of the New Year firing of head coach Mariusz Karol, plus the exodus of a cluster of players from an unhappy ship in which Robinson – this week named the BBL’s MVP – had been steering from below deck to avoid what had been verging on anarchy since pre-season.

Owner Vince Macaulay returned in charge but Larkai feared the chaos would not lift.

“By the time Mariusz had gone, and a few others had gone, numbers had depleted,” he admits. “Guys were doing what they could, even if they were banged up as well.

“What happened was I came in, we got blown out by Leicester, we lost to Worcester. Then we had two weeks of no games, where guys got to heal, got to work together, got to build the camaraderie. New guys came in and it took off from there.”

League runners-up, London’s presence gives the BBL the finale it wanted most. Leicester, defending their playoff crown, have been largely untouchable all year long.

Except there is history here that hints this could fall either way. London ruined the Riders plans for a quadruple with a Cup quarter-final upset before vengeance was taken in the Trophy semi-finals.

Then in the league, the Lions eeked out the head to head with a late season victory. Enough that there is confidence in their camp that a franchise that began its top flight life 30 years ago in Hemel can land the playoff prize for the very first time.

It could do so much to help fight their corner in the capital, Larkai concedes.

“London is a big city. But the basketball team hasn’t been what it should be. So we feel like we’re in a position to finally put the pieces together to make that happen.”

And to give the returning wanderer a little honour on his own doorstep.

“Would it be nice?” he grins. “It would be bloody nice. I’ve thanked the guys for putting me in a position, and us in a position, that I can go for my fourth championship.

“I won three in Japan but I didn’t think I’d get a chance of another one. But then, with this group, I’ve got the chance of one more and I feel pretty privileged about that.”

 

Photo: Mansoor Ahmed

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