Great Britain’s basketballers, Chema Buceta declares, hold an opportunity to ignite a revolution in Belgrade.

Not that the amiable Spaniard would throw such pressure onto his players as they prepare to embark on their bid to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Thursday.

“The future of basketball in the UK,” he affirms, “is not on our shoulders.”

Yet the man who has guided GB to the cusp of exploring unprecedented terrain knows only too well of the power of international success – and what treasures it might unlock.

Headed into a round-robin group that also includes Spain, China and South Korea, the reality is that his squad are already high achievers on an historic scale, courtesy of their storybook run to the semi-finals of FIBA Women’s EuroBasket last summer.

Acclaim, even recognition, from outside the hoops bubble, was still hard to find. Other national sporting teams are massively lauded for much less. GB’s astonishing achievements, all but ignored.

But the Olympics, ever centre stage, can never be overlooked. Buceta’s team, should they qualify on their own merits, would demand attention. Rightly so.

Just as the veteran playcaller witnessed while in charge of his native land at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when the Spanish truly came of age as a basketball nation (the women came fifth, the men ninth), shoving a snowball downhill that has continued to enlarge and gather speed and impetus.

“Recognition comes when the teams or athletes do something,” Buceta declares.

“This is important, that our players are better known. At the last EuroBasket, we got many messages from young players on social media saying ‘we’re with you’. I think the recognition will come.

“In Spain in 1992, it is true that women’s basketball was almost nothing. After that, these players were more recognised and more popular. The next generation had more motivation: the possibility to do something big … that’s probably why Spain now medals in every tournament they play. This is possible.

“But we have to change the mentality and think big. It’s not enough to put players on the court. We have to think big and get the best talent. It’s important to find that, work hard, and then there is no reason we can’t get a high level.”

They have climbed this far by shutting out the waves of noise, from the doomsayers who insisted further Lottery investment in the GB teams was a bad bet, from those charged with running the sport who have often appeared to see it grind to a stop.

“We’ve never focused on the outside, things we cannot control,” admits Eilidh Simpson, whose late injury has been the lone blight.

“As a group, we can only control the outcome on the court. We’re showing what we can do. Now I think it’s the outside who need to catch up to us because we’re such at a high level.”

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To the point that GB will no longer sneak into Serbia on the blind side, even if many will view them as underdogs in an Olympic qualifying pool from which three of the four participants will earn tickets to Tokyo in August.

Buceta would rather you gave the credit to his players, to the twin totems of Temi Fagbenle and Jo Leedham, to the priceless third wheel of Karlie Samuelson, to a core around them ever willing to lay down for the cause.

However the psychology professor who once walked the corridors of Real Madrid offering wise counsel to coaches and galacticos alike has shifted the mindset to huge effect.

“We play for each other,” says Chantelle Handy, one of four holdovers from London 2012 when GB – granted a place by FIBA – won respect but not a game.

“It’s never this player needs to do that, or whatever. We just do what we need to do to get the job done. I think that’s a special thing that a lot of teams don’t have anymore.”

Buceta, who took charge in 2015 following a spell at the helm of Bulgaria, sees the collaboration from 180 degrees away. A cause worth getting behind, with all signing up.

“The secret was to empower the players and to find a common goal that can fit with individual interests and which is attractive,” he underlines.

“It’s not just going to a competition just to participate, It’s trying to do something better and do something more and develop ambition, a realistic ambition.

“And to create a good atmosphere. The players have been very generous and kind in helping the team grow. Understanding the role they have in the team, that’s important. We’ve a group who are able to understand that.

“And when results are good, that always helps. This is big. But we have to be humble. That’s important. We work hard. We stay wise. These are simple things for a big result.

“In sports sometimes, we complicate things. The key thing is to make things easy.”

Belgrade, the scene of GB’s finest hour to date, will be no simplistic stroll. China, despite losing home advantage due to the coronavirus outbreak, have prepared extensively and perform consistently.

Spain, silver medallists in Rio and European champions from 2019, need no additional hype. South Korea survived an arduous pre-qualifier in New Zealand. All are threats, even if the latter – whom GB face on Saturday – might be the most susceptible to a British conquest.

“We have to think in this tournament that we have to go game by game,” Buceta maintains.

“We have to prepare for China, and then we will think for Korea. Of course, we are preparing for Korea and Spain. Spain not so much because we know them better. Since the draw, we’ve been focusing on the other two teams.”

All will challenge GB in different ways, he adds.

“China has height and speed. Korea has no height – just one tall player – but they play collective basketball, good defence, good help. Very quick. A lot of reaction and it’s difficult to defend them one on one.

“They’re big fighters. It’s interesting for us to play them in official games. It’s an interesting challenge.”

Up Buceta’s sleeve is a newly-printed wildcard. Kristine Anigwe, a defensive behemoth in college, has the pedigree of a season in the WNBA and a few months adjusting to the international professional game in Turkey.

London-born, she nevertheless has prior FIBA chops from winning world championship titles with the United States at Under 17 and 19 levels.

Now, she has been repatriated, perhaps to back up Fagbenle or to give GB the additional muscle it has sought since the retirement of Azania Stewart.

“We have a good feeling about Kristine,” Buceta admits. “She’s a very young player, only 22. She just came out of college last May but was a good player at college level and for USA at younger levels.

“She’s playing in Turkey now, which is a good spot, and I hope she’s going to be a big plus for us. But it is true it is her first time with us, so we’ll see.

“But we have high hopes that she is not just going to be a good player in this tournament but for the future of GB.”

That outlook will take shape before Sunday night falls. Can GB up their ante once again and bulldoze their way into the hoops establishment? This special group will once more show no respect for anyone’s reputation, save their own.

It would surely beg the spotlight, command attention, prove irrefutably that British basketball is not the stuff of unfulfilled potential but real concrete attainment.

What a grandiose revolution this tilt at Olympic qualification could spark.

“And that should be the legacy of this team,” Buceta underlines.

“That it is possible to do something if you think big. Sometimes, we spend too much in meetings, discussing and talking, without going to the action.

“We need to go to the action.”


Thursday. GB v China (11am GMT)
Saturday. GB v South Korea (1.30pm)
Sunday. GB v Spain (1.30pm)

Watch every GB game via MVP247.com

Olympic qualifiers: Group by group preview

Photos: Mansoor Ahmed

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