Amid the hoop-la, it is often asked what legacy the NBA has generated for basketball for the United Kingdom. The semblance of an answer might lie in a small corner of south-east London.

That’s where you’ll find Steve Bucknall on a daily basis: encouraging, cajoling, fighting for the sport to take a firm hold. The ethos of the Lewisham Thunder, which the former England international helped establish four years ago, is simple.

“We say it comes down to three things,” he outlines. “Teamwork. Responsibility. And self-discipline.”

Those are traits which, Bucknall insists, were injected into his DNA during his stint with the Los Angeles Lakers where he spent his rookie professional season before embarking on a lengthy and distinguished career in Europe.

Emerging from the University of North Carolina, he was offered no guarantees when he accepted an invite to battle out for a place in training camp in the summer of 1989.

“I had other offers,” he reveals. “But I chose to try to make it there, even though it was one of the most difficult roads to take.”

Bucknall was a trailblazer, the first to  travel through the British system to basketball’s summit. As a talented junior at Crystal Palace, he attended summer camps in New England which led to the offer of a high school place in Boston. Then it was off to Chapel Hill before the bright lights of Hollywood beckoned.

Coming in as a long shot, they told the Londoner – above all – to be prepared to run. “Everyone came to camp in shape which you don’t see these days,” he reflects.

A year removed from winning the title, there was already talent in abundance at the Lakers in a team build around Magic Johnson. With few openings, pre-season was a dogfight. No-one wanted to be sent home.

“You had Magic, Michael Cooper and Byron Scott already there,” he recalls. “A lot of guys were released, including Mario Elie. I was actually surprised when I made the roster but I still cherish having played there.

“No-one in the UK had really thought that they could make the NBA before I did so I felt a lot of pride that other guys could now believe they could go there as well.”

The lessons learnt then are being passed on in Lewisham where Bucknall, now aged 44, is employed as a Community Sports Coach by the local council.

“Being around those guys helped me,” he underlines. “Even the practices were hard. It showed me the mentality you need to be a success.”

There was no excuse for slacking. Johnson led by example and it left a lasting impression on the British newcomer.

“We used to practice at 9am but if you came in half an hour earlier, he’d be there working on something which would give him an edge. That he worked that hard impressed me. He was a winner and he competed constantly, even in scrimmages.”

Having hung up his boots following the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Bucknall’s mission is to nurture a new generation of dreamers who imagine a life dressed in purple and gold.

The Thunder, where his Greek-born wife Nasia also coaches, organises teams for all ages, primarily at their base in Forest Hill Community Centre. “Our Under-13s are undefeated. Our Under-18s have only lost twice,” he states proudly.

Yet there are blocks in the lane to overcome.

The L-word is the buzz phrase of the sport at present. Not just when examining the spin-offs of the NBA’s promotional activity but when pondering the side-effects of next year’s Olympics Games.

Bucknall’s old international colleague, John Amaechi, recently questioned what profits the investment into London 2012 will deliver once the flame has been extinguished.

“I look at Manchester and Sheffield with envy with the venues they have,” the ex-Laker admits. “I wish we had that. It’s a real problem in London.”

The capital, currently without a top-level professional club but with a huge core of players, is due to get a home for basketball within the Olympic development. More than logo-emblazoned clinics or snazzy PR initiatives, he says, it is real investment which is needed to create a sustainable bequest.

“I’d like backing,” Bucknall declares. “The funding cuts are having an effect.

“But we’re seeing the benefits of a community club. That’s what it should be. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with the sport when I first went along to Crystal Palace.

“There are too many clubs which are standalone, with one team. You need a structure there to really develop the sport.”

In Stratford, no effort is being spared to drum up the five-ring circus. The NBA stars in town this week will want for nothing. Just a three-point shot away, the man who once stood in their shoes waits, and hopes, for the trickledown effect.

Main photo: NBAE/Getty

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