JIMMY ROGERS: 1939-2018

Jimmy Rogers, a seminal figure in British basketball, has died at the age of 78.

The patriarch of Brixton Topcats may have been an adopted Scouser with unbroken affection for Liverpool FC. But it was in south London where his endeavours left an indelible mark, building a programme that not only unearthed some of the country’s leading talents but which also offered a refuge and an opportunity to those within its environs.

He had been suffering from cancer in recent months but spent his final weeks at home in the capital, surrounded by family and friends.

A statement from the club he built and cherished announced his passing on Monday.

It said: “Jimmy’s work and commitment to his community is unmatched. A father figure, coach, mentor and guide to innumerable people, Jimmy had the purest heart of gold. Jimmy was a man that sacrificed, served, gave in immeasurable ways to his community in and outside of Brixton Topcats where he created a home away from home for thousands of players.

“Jimmy’s legacy, influence and work will live on forever. He will be sorely missed and our thoughts, prayers, love and support are with his family and his friends at this difficult time.”

Outspoken, occasionally stubborn, with deep reserves of passion and a wicked sense of humour, Rogers was born in Wales and spent his initial years in an orphanage on Tyneside. He was itinerant in his early adulthood too, joining the army before a fervour for basketball, nurtured in school, was channelled into a spell on the court with the-then German champions Osnabruck while stationed in the country.

International call-ups followed. But his enduring legacy came from the grassroots rather than the professional game.

It was in 1981 that the Topcats were informally established before a more firm constitution three years later, Rogers lobbying the local council for seed money and then using the area’s recreational centre as a magnet for all who wanted to play.

There were rules. To be obeyed under a threat of a personal admonishment.

“When a kid first comes here,” he said, in an interview with The Independent, “you can see them thinking, ‘what’s going on here?’ They have no idea about discipline, but they soon come to really enjoy it.

“I have never thrown a kid out, because they get rejection all the time, and I don’t allow anyone to laugh at anyone else because I can remember what it was like at the start, not knowing how to play. I had one girl here joined us at 17. Never done any sport in her life, slightly overweight. Three years later she made the London Towers women’s team, national league. Fantastic.”

There were many from that production line, from future NBA All Star and now-Minnesota Timberwolves forward Luol Deng and ex-WNBAer Andrea Congreaves to past and present Great Britain players including Eric Boateng, Justin Robinson and Matthew Bryan-Amaning and those who flourished with other UK teams such as Ronnie and Stedroy Baker.

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When i was 11, you told me that i should play basketball instead of football. At the time all i wanted to do was to be a professional football player, but you kept telling me that i could be pretty good at basketball and here i am today, going into my 15th season in the NBA. Today has been a really tough day and i kept most of it to myself thinking about you nonstop. At practice today, you kept crossing my mind but instead of feeling sad, I just kept smiling thinking of how much you use to push me and how much you believed in me. Man what i would do to go back in time, back in the recreation center in Brixton. In life, we are so lucky if we find someone who believes in you and is willing to give everything to see you reach the top. Jimmy, you lived such a beautiful blessed life: you were strong, confident, you knew how to be tough and how to love, and you knew how to be a leader. I’m so thankful that God gave me a chance to be a part of your life. You left me with so much to be thankful for, most of my close friends i met because of you, and we will continue your legacy. You will forever be a part of us. I can only picture you sitting back resting and laughing from being so blessed. I know when we meet again we will do it all over. #DriveTheBody Rest In Peace, Jimmy. I love you with all my heart. ♥️

A post shared by Luol Deng (@luoldeng9) on

Rogers fought his corner. Indignant at what he perceived as the wasting of resources by the then-English Basketball Association (now Basketball England), he compiled a dossier – backed by many fellow coaches – which alleged that the UK had become a “third world” country in basketball terms “due to the fact that the vast majority of our finances are determined by and spent on administrators, not the players or coaches.”

He added that achieving meaningless standards had become an obstacle to growing the game and that a lack of indoor facilities was a “crippling issue”.

There was little indication his perception of those issues had altered in his latter years. He was a critic of the elitist Lottery-funded system that prioritises Olympic medals in sports for the few, like rowing, over participation for the many. An egalitarian foremost.

He was in the Toxteth district of Liverpool when it was torn apart by riots, sparked by a lack of hope. In Brixton, an area afflicted by the same malaise, he preached education first, hoops second, with those who made names for themselves on the court just a part of a alumni group that also includes prominent lawyers and teachers.

“Jimmy is Brixton,” Deng said. “He has done so much for the community helping thousands of kids get off the streets and do something constructive with their lives. He is known as someone who gives back, who helps.”

Rogers felt his was a cause worth fighting for. “It’s like a drug … it’s putting the ball through the hoop. What can I say? You see it on the faces of the little kids who come in here, it’s addictive. I’m still passionate about it after all this time.”

The tributes following his passing were numerous and warm. Former Great Britain captain Drew Sullivan grew up playing for the Hackney Academy, run by the late Joe White, which was the north London counterpoint to Brixton.

“Some of the best times of my life were playing for Towers against the Brixton Top Cats,” he said. “It didn’t matter how fierce the games were or what the outcome was there was always a huge amount of respect between the two teams. And that was down to Joe and Jimmy. Rest well now coach, you will be missed.”

Sullivan’s former team-mate David Aliu added: “Absolutely devastated hearing about the passing of this man. Jimmy Rogers was not only a LEGEND in our world but Father figure, Mentor, Friend and family. We have truly lost one of the greats helping kids follow their dreams with support, guidance and discipline. Had some of my best memories around this man.”

How grateful were so many for Rogers’ attentions.

Photo: Asher/Facebook

Rogers’ age was updated from the original version

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