It became a familiar query from old friends each time I put in a cameo appearance in the media tribune at Rio’s Carioca Arena to catch a quarter or occasionally a half of the Olympic basketball tournament in between stops in the vicinity at alternative attractions like swimming, diving and gymnastics.

“Where have you been?” they’d ask. I had to fess up. “Been covering the sports the British are good at.”

Cue rolling eyes. A step back in time. To the days when UK hoops were an international irrelevance, to an era when the very idea of seeing a Great Britain team competing on the highest stage was a fantasy not even Ryan Lochte could have concocted.

And so, a mere ten days after the United States were picking up the final gold medal of the Games to confirm their place at the apex of the global pyramid, GB find themselves back at its foot, asked to climb back off the floor and prove their worth all over again.

It hardly seems only four years since our national sides were revelling in the luxuriant access all-areas pass they were accorded in London, mixing with the Goliaths and not for a single second looking out of place.

But on Wednesday evening in the city of Kecskemet, the men’s side will begin what is a long, arduous and unlikely journey towards the 2020 Games in Tokyo in the first of six qualification games for next summer’s EuroBasket.

“We’ve definitely taken a step back,” captain Kieron Achara, one of five 2012 holdovers, admits. “But at the same time, we’re in a better place now than we were ten years ago when the programme was first formed.

“We have lost a lot of our core group of guys who play at a higher level. We’re in a re-building stage. But we’re a level above from when we were competing against the Switzerlands just to get into Europe’s top tier. I look at our squad from 2013 to now and we’re deeper now. And that gives us a chance in these qualifiers.”

How badly the sport needs the lift. Next month, British Basketball, the refreshed governing body, will formally take over the leadership of the sport from the three home nations with a mandate for reform that includes a top to bottom strategic re-start that will include overhauling the domestic BBL league to make it fitter for purpose as a shop window and as a pathway for those with talent to come through.

With little sign that UK Sport will deviate from the success or scrapheap approach that saw the British squad claim a record 57 medals at Rio 2016, there appears little hope that basketball will regain its Lottery grant any time soon.

A case must be built. Green shoots of recovery must be nurtured. “I can look at it from an investment side,” Achara says. “It’s all about cleaning up our own house and making sure we know exactly what we’re doing. That we’ve got a game plan going forward.

“I look at the new regime at British Basketball and it’s going in the right direction. It has to be clear that this is what you’re going to get. And once we can fully answer those questions, we’ll have the right set-up.”

Joe Prunty has faith in his group (MAP)

Joe Prunty has faith in his group (MAP)

They have to start somewhere. That place is here. A qualifying group that also includes Macedonia and Luxembourg is not insurmountable for a squad helmed by Joe Prunty, the associate head coach of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.

But if Britain is to re-join the elite whence it came, then vast improvements must be sought so that the next generation might one day dream of reaching an Olympics on its own terms.

And while the 2017 EuroBasket is not embedded directly into the route to Tokyo, any further regression in the team’s ranking could drop an insurmountable blockade into the road.

“Going forward, we need to ensure that little bit of consistency,” Achara offers. “I feel like we’re lacking that cash that allows us to come together more than two weeks before.

“Coming into camp, we need to know which players are going to be there. And make sure we know ourselves. I’d love to come in next year and already have that identity. That we know our offense. That we know each other’s games. That we have a longer training camp. That we have a few more warm-up games.

“Rather than arriving at camp and jumping straight into games. But I understand that funding is a big thing. If we get a bit more of that and put it in the right place, we could jump up quite a bit.”

It is a signal, perhaps, of frustration. Five losses out of five in the build-up have not generated bags of optimism, while the addition of the former Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon – who has, for reasons not yet fully explained, come out of retirement to make his debut for the country of his birth – has not provided a notable boost.

All hope, Achara declares, is not lost.

“We played some of our best but also some of our worst,” the Glasgow Rocks forward advises. “But at the same time, I thought even if we’d won every build-up game, this would still be a fresh start.

“We can’t dwell on what’s happened on the past. We need to just focus on the little things, the mental lapses, the periods when we’ve just not scored, the stretches when we’ve not got any stops. We’ve worked on all these things in practice. So we’re confident we can get the job done.”

Let the comeback begin.

Pics: BB/Mansoor Ahmed

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