Carl Wheatle is prepped for life in the fast lane.

Of all the countries for a newly-licensed driver to start hitting the roads, Italy has to be right up there as a test of nerve and skill.

Everyone seems to think they’re auditioning to join Ferrari. Small streets, autostrade, no matter. Foot to the floor and go.

Already an expert in acceleration at the age of 20, Carl Wheatle has quickly assimilated.

Deep breath, off you go.

Much as he was required to do when he left London before his 16th birthday and headed to the picturesque town of Biella, a speedy car ride away from Milan and Turin, to examine his own limits in a sport that still felt new and novel.

He’d been talent spotted turning out for England at the Under-16 European Championships. Offers came. He hesitated but his mother told him there would be a lifetime of regrets if he didn’t take the plunge.

“At the start I wasn’t 100% sure on the idea,” Wheatle recounts. “Mainly because I’d only been playing basketball for a year and a half.

“From when I just turned 14. I’d not been playing most of my life. It wasn’t a lifelong goal. But it was an opportunity.

“The people closest to me and around me saw it as an opportunity for me, one I wanted try out. The more time that’s passed, the more I relish that opportunity.”

He matured quickly. No real alternative choice.

“Leaving home at 15 is not the normal thing to do but it helped me grow up quicker. It gave me more independence and allowed me to see things in a different way.”

It meant learning on the fly. In new ways.

He was in the fourth quarter of studying for his GCSEs when he departed. Classes moved online. Exams taken, and passed, during the off-season. Doors kept open.

Encouragement came from family, from Alan Keane, his first influential coach. The staff at the Greenhouse project that nurtures a wealth of talent in the capital. “They put me in an environment where I could succeed,” he says.

But in Italy, he had to educate himself as well as soak up lessons.

Biella has an excellent academy, which has delivered a clutch of proven players.

They took care of their young arrival. Gave him a tutor. Solid coaching and an ecosystem to grow. “The way I’ve developed as a player, it’s my hard work,” Wheatle declares. “But it’s them leading me the right way.”

Upon arrival, he didn’t speak any Italian. Maybe two or three words max. “It took me two or three years to learn it well,” he acknowledges. “Now I speak it pretty fluently but at the start it was tough. Because you don’t have any friends abroad and you have to make friends.

“That was one of the main challenges: the language barrier. Because you can’t really converse with people the way you want to.

“It’s not as bad on the court because when you’re playing, you don’t need to speak the same language. That comes from playing together. But with the social aspect, it took me a while to get comfortable. They weren’t used to me and the language barrier hurts as well.”

Now his game is increasingly as fluent as his Italiano, one reason why he already made himself indispensible for his club – averaging 12 point and 8 rebounds in Biella’s slow start in Serie B – and country, for whom he’ll pull on a Great Britain jersey in Thursday’s EuroBasket 2021 pre-qualifier against Austria in Manchester.

A few within the extended camp have tabbed Wheatle as a future captain. “Something I would appreciate greatly,” he confirms.

A leader of the new pack which might come through in this new, extended cycle leading up to Paris 2024 Olympics.

Time to push the accelerator, even as he pauses to take in the view.

“I do have those moments,” Wheatle declares. “I didn’t expect this to happen. Because when I was a young kid, I was a footballer. Basketball wasn’t really in the plans.

“So to now be in the sport where I’m playing for GB, it sometimes takes me aback a bit. I’m grateful for what happened. And for the opportunities I’ve been given. I want to work harder because this might be my career.”

Listen to our extended podcast with Carl Wheatle here or download via your preferred source

Photo: Mansoor Ahmed

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