In Bristol, they are breaking the mould by going back to basics.

There were rumours, of course, and rumblings of talks about talks. But Greg Streete was among the sceptics that Bristol Flyers could make the grandiose leap from a part-time community club into the full-time, risk-laden sphere of the BBL.

“I didn’t really believe it would happen,” he admits. “I never really thought as an organisation that we’d be able to work our way up to the top level, especially as it had never been done in Bristol before. It was a shock.”

It is the surprise that, for Streete, Bristol and for the rest of the league, that keeps on giving.

For the first time seemingly in an age, a new club has come into the top flight and not immediately floundered. The Flyers are, well, flying.

And six weeks into their maiden campaign, they have already earned the admiration and respect from their rivals.

But how did they confound the odds and make an immediate impact? A little cash has gone a long way, to be certain. With arguably the richest owner in the BBL in City whizz turned sporting entrepreneur Stephen Lansdown, the Flyers have been able to arrive with reinforcements, avoiding the scraping-by approach which fatally undermined Birmingham’s hopes a year ago.

But more than money, it’s about a system and a plan, one developed assiduously from the bottom up rather than cobbled together from the top down, a project almost a decade in the making that has taken the Westcountry outfit from the foot of the English pyramid to a forthcoming BBL Cup semi-final and a secure berth in the middle of the standings.

Andreas Kapoulas had no real designs on being centrally involved in this labour when he arrived from Greece to pursue a doctorate in economics at Bath University. Once a member of the junior programme at Olympiacos, he had a modest playing career spent principally at Doukas, a side on the fringes of Athens which made small waves when it rose from nowhere to the second tier of the Greek League.

Tempted to supplement supply and demand with evening sessions at the local side in Bath, it proved that his hoops bug was not fully extinguished. From informal discussions to serious consideration, the nascent Bristol project piqued his interest enough to put his Ph.D on hold.

The blueprint came easy. “The set-up (with Doukas) was similar to here, a school attached to a National League club,” he recounts. “The idea was very similar with academies. Plus they had handball and volleyball. It was a template I was able to use here.”

Together with Nick Burns, his assistant then and now, he set about pushing the team up the EBL, winning promotions and trophies from their inaugural National League entry onwards before taking over the Academy programme in 2009.

It was a gamble, of sorts, to bail on an education which was not yet complete. But he had a vision from the outset, to use the senior side as the hub of an ever-expanding wheel.

“Then we felt it would be appropriate to develop a junior section, starting from Under-12,” he reveals. “From there, the community programme developed to support the Under-12s, so that built schools links. And then also to have a men’s team.

“We had early success and we wanted that, both to showcase our Academy but also to provide an escape route from it into high level basketball. That’s carried on into our BBL team.”

Streete, born and raised in Bristol, epitomises the model: develop the player, provide the opportunity, watch him run. “He’s the captain now but when we started in 2005, he was one of those who came through the whole programme, all the way to here,” Kapoulas proudly outlines.

Kapoulas: Flyer architect

Kapoulas: Flyer architect

“Now what we want to do is utilise the BBL team for more than just winning games. We want to create more Greg Streetes. That’s our biggest aspiration, to find more like him at the age of six or seven and take them all the way through.”

Beyond the BBL squad now nestle 35 Academy prospects, including five females. There is a performance squad and a development side, a focus now just on their semi-professional set-up but also on what is effectively a reserve line-up in Division 4 and an Under-18 shadow side.

It has created a culture and an identity. “The way Andreas has set up the entire programme, there’s a good structure to that,” Streete affirms. “The only thing we were missing was that top team, a BBL franchise, and now we have that as well.”

Kapoulas adds: “The ethos is always to have a focus for our Academy players within the team – we have three in at the moment. But we were looking for players who would fit our system and have an immediate impact in the league.

“Doug Herring was one. Doug McLaughlin-Williams had been here for five years and we knew he was a BBL-level talent. Matthias Sherlund was a Danish international. And Alif Bland already had experienced in this league, and we thought he’d be the ideal big man.”

On the floor, the playbook is virtually identical to the one employed last season in the EBL, a key factor in the immediate comfort level that both players and coaches have displayed in the opening weeks of the BBL campaign.

Fundamentals are coached. Defence is drilled. Passing and movement obligatory. “It’s just that now we’ve added some more talented players, some experience on top of what we had before,” Streete underlines.

So, what next?

Lansdown has revived the sporting club model in the city, linking Bristol Rugby with Bristol City men’s football club, as well as the Bristol Academy Ladies football team.

Sensing an opportunity to add an extra dimension to the Bristol Sport family, Kapoulas went in with an ambitious but realistic plan and was welcomed into the fold.

Those ties are still in their infancy. Much of Lansdown’s resources have been devoted to the renewal of Ashton Gate stadium to provide a modern arena for the other three teams.

Yet, within two years, there are hopes that the Flyers might gain a home of their own, one with enough seating to chase spectators and enough space to bring their local initiatives under one roof.

“We’re at the early stages of that relationship,” Kapoulas says. “But we’re seeing the benefits. The football and rugby team come to our games. We go to theirs. There’s interaction but there is also commercial spinoffs, cross-fertilisation, that idea of having several sports under one banner, like Real Madrid or Barcelona.”

It is a heady comparison. But, even on a smaller scale of ambition, you have to start somewhere.

Bristol and basketball might not previously have been synonymous but the construction project has laid down solid foundations, one brick at a time.

“I am proud,” Streete enthuses. “There’s been a lot of talent come through Bristol and we’ve never had a professional team so I feel lucky and blessed to be around when that opportunity finally came along.”

BBL Notes

– Ali Fraser’s stint in the BBL will, in all probability, last one solitary game. It seems unlikely the Great Britain forward will appear for Glasgow Rocks again with a minimum of two months rehabilitation from a knee surgery performed by the same surgeon who repaired Andrew Lawrence’s cruciate last spring.

ali fraserBut the 21-year-old has been caught up in one of the lesser-known fallouts from GB losing their high-performance funding from UK Sport, with members of the national teams no longer covered under the agency’s Athlete Medical Scheme – effectively, a health insurance policy that provides care and support across all the Olympic sports.

In the wake of losing Lottery backing, British Basketball’s players effectively lost coverage on July 24, although an extension was granted until the end of the summer to coincide with the end of the European Championship campaigns.

Fraser just beat the deadline. But now, among the lengthy to-do list stacking up for the revamped governing body, is persuading UK Sport to restore that backing, something which one GB player said “will have a massive impact on players who might want to come home and play in the BBL.”

Despite a promise from Liz Nicholl, UK Sport’s chief executive, of renewed assistance – in addition to cash from Sport England – British Basketball are set to remain outside the insurance scheme. “It is not part of the technical support,” confirmed a spokesperson, “although it is accessible to GB Basketball if they were to fund it themselves.”

Since resources remain tight, that may prove awkward.

But with one of their chief bugbears said to be that few GB men’s and women’s internationals are contracted to clubs at home, it would be ironic if the biggest roadblock was one laid down by UK Sport itself.

– Cheshire Phoenix’s propulsion of Lester Prosper through the revolving doors of the Northgate Arena on Sunday means seven players, originally destined for Chester since the summer, have now parted company for a variety of reasons, ranging from injury, visa complications, to the lure of alternative employment.

Although Prosper, who is understood to have been unhappy with the opportunities for court time granted by head coach John Coffino, did not take up an overseas spot (he is from the British Virgin Islands), the Nix have now used eight of the nine allowable non-UK player registrations per team before mid-November has passed.

It is not the only upheaval. Long-time coach Mike Burton remains a director of the club but has stepped away from a regular role in recent weeks, as has his one-time successor Robbie Peers who had been involved at a management level. Burton, club sources say, did not gel with the former D-league playcaller.

Prosper will be replaced, Coffino has pledged, but will that be the final switch?

BBL Insider appears every Tuesday on MVP

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • MySpace
  • Print

You must be logged in to post a comment Login