LEEDHAM, AGAIN, BY EXAMPLE

Restored and reinvigorated, Britain’s leading light is ready to shine.

A pat on the back here, a word of encouragement there, Great Britain’s traffic cop polices the practice with vigour and intent, barking out instructions with efficient clarity to maximise the returns on every single second invested on the court.

“You go over that side. You’re here. I want you in this position,” Jo Leedham proclaims, waving arms and pointing fingers to eliminate any ambiguity or doubt.

Inside the gym in Podgorica where their EuroBasket qualifying campaign will tip off on Saturday against Montenegro, the coaching staff watch on, engaged but at ease with allowing the team’s most distinguished player to take personal charge. “She’s always done that,” smiles long-time assistant Vanessa Ellis. “Best let her get on with it.”

With respect from her peers evident, and those at the helm happy to defer, it is easy to spot the unique contribution which Leedham, now 27, brings – and also to sense what was lost when she took the difficult decision to embark on a two-year exile after being the foundation around which GB’s international ascent was built.

It was tough to watch the team struggle at last summer’s EuroBasket in Hungary, the Cheshire-born guard acknowledges, when we speak at the team’s hotel near the centre of this concrete capital city. Dead last and winless in the 2015 tournament, a short-handed GB often looked lost and listless under now-departed coach Peter Buckle, their status among the continent’s elite now consigned to the past.

In the interests of preserving a body whose frailties require constant maintenance, Leedham had opted to rest and recuperate once again following another impressive campaign with Euroleague behemoth Bourges, spurning the lure of a short but lucrative stint in the WNBA to ensure her longevity closer to home.

“I have to do what’s best for me as well at the end of the day,” Leedham, a winner of over 60 caps since her 2009 debut, confirms. “But it’s great to have my shirt back and that two-year gap has made me hungry again. My body’s feeling good.

“I’m fortunate I’m at a very professional club where they generally care about my health. Camp hasn’t been too stressful so I’m feeling quite fresh. But it’s been nice to have summers off to rest my mind and my body.”

gbw group

With qualifiers now pushed to mid-season, and FIBA’s revamped calendar designed to minimise wear and tear, it took less deliberation to opt back in ahead of a campaign that will also see GB face Italy and Albania in their quest to qualify for the Czech Republic.

Diminished by the enforced absence of Temi Fagbenle, and with an urgent need to give youth its head, Leedham’s sheer presence has provided a timely lift at the outset of the reign of new coach Jose Maria Buceta.

Few Britons have ever featured regularly in the Euroleague, where players are asked to raise themselves above and beyond their domestic norm and pit skills and savvy against the best in the world.

“It elevates you,” Leedham says. What a contrast, though, from the still-nascent league in her homeland and a complete disconnect for the British club game from the competition held on the continental mainland.

Bourges, with its modern arena and an ecosystem that creates high-level talent in addition to that hired from outside, is an example of what happens when a common cause is found and generous local backing is wisely spent.

“You go out and people recognise you in the town,” she reflects. “In Bourges, we’re the main attraction. There’s no men’s team. Everyone knows who you are. We get 3700 on average. We can max out at 5000. People are behind it but the club have worked hard to get where they are, with a lot of volunteers who make it a part of their lifestyle. I’m lucky to feel part of that.”

Leedham has enjoyed Bourges (FIBAE)

Leedham has enjoyed Bourges (FIBAE)

When Ellesmere Port threw the doors open to its own new (if somewhat smaller-scale arena) earlier this year, I joked on social media that it should have been named the Jo Leedome as a nod to the local Olympian. You doubt if an idea that was not wholly far-fetched had ever been pitched, an illustration of how little recognition has been given to someone whose is heralded abroad but anonymous at home.

British basketball, especially on the women’s side, still exists in the shadows. “A lot of people think we have side jobs,” Leedham reveals. “They really do. I’m fortunate I’m at the pinnacle where what I earn means I don’t need another job. There are a lot of people who just aren’t aware that women are playing basketball all over the country and overseas.

“But when we flew out to Montenegro, a woman on the plane said ‘I didn’t even know we had a women’s team’ so it’s comforting to know it’s not just a British thing. But I’m fortunate I’m in France where women’s sport is held in such high esteem and it’s well-supported.”

UK Sport, famously, deemed the Great Britain teams as unworthy of their backing, stripping away Lottery funding last year in the wake of an assessment that calculated neither the men or women had the potential to be world-class.

It was a brutal assessment but not without some harsh truths. Yet many believe such a strategy leads only to a never-ending circle of decay. Without money, success cannot be nurtured. Without success and the coffers remain dry.

With the door to Rio long shut, it is vital that some hope is given that the 2020 Olympics are not an impossible ambition.

“It’s important to make a push for Tokyo,” nods Leedham. “But it’s important to take it step by step. Now it’s the qualifiers for 2017. It’s an every day process.”

At the helm is Buceta, who will surely place Leedham at the heart of his strategy this weekend – and in Manchester next Wednesday against the Italians. His enthusiasm and his passion, she says, have immediately impressed. The unexpected decision to bring in teenage forwards Eleanor Jones and Savannah Wilkinson has been met with applause rather angst.

Jones is part of a youth movement

Jones is part of a youth movement

Such strategic foresight is welcome. Senior men’s players, Drew Sullivan and Luol Deng most notably, have spoken out about a lack of cultural clarity seeded by British Basketball, about a failure to develop the kind of continuous programme that sees the likes of Spain and France pass on their insights from this generation to the next.

If not from them, then from us, Leedham signals. “Just keep pushing. The young girls need to learn from the veterans. The veterans need to teach. People need to ask questions of what we want and how we want to do it. That has to happen constantly. Sometimes I ask questions and I know the answer but it’s for everyone else’s benefit.

“We need to be invested. It’s not just a once a year thing. And it’s not going to happen overnight. We need this to build over years to come and we need to be invested in coming back. It’s going to be something that comes from both ends.”

Explaining the play, pushing for perfection, Leedham is practicing what she preaches. It is easy to envisage her becoming a coach once her days of sprinting up and down a court are done, following the lead of her elder sister Jen who is impressively carving out a formidable reputation on the sidelines of their alma mater Franklin-Pierce.

Great Britain would be wise to keep her involved, no matter which role she accepts. The team, the sport, is better for her engagement.

Much responsibility, inevitably, will fall on Leedham’s shoulders against the Montenegrins and beyond. It will be accepted, she confirms. But one star does not a galaxy make.

“It’s important to share the load out because it’s a 12-man team and a five-man job on the floor with seven on the bench as well,” she adds. “The ball can’t constantly go through. We need everyone to stay involved.

“People need to shoot when they’re open. They need to be fully focused on defence. We need everyone involved.”

A mantra demanding attention, to be backed up naturally with words and deeds.

Main pic: Mansoor Ahmed

 

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