Over a decade has passed since Neal Meyer landed in the UK and placed both feet onto pastures unknown.

A few more grey hairs, he laments, from his previous tenures as an assistant coach during NBA stops with Portland, the LA Clippers, Cleveland and Denver.

He took a pivot, outside the zone, into the post of basketball operations at the NBA’s London office with a remit to develop the game in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

A job to make of what you will, from overseeing a Jr. NBA/WNBA programme that has rolled out to kids to managing outreach of various forms to … anything else that fits.

A soft sale, of course, for the leagues’ bid to combat the global supremacy of the Premier League and football. Business, 24/7.

The by-product is profitable too, Meyer underlines.

“For us, it’s really working to grow the game globally and get more boys and girls participating,” he says. “Obviously that can lead to future fans of the NBA and things of that nature.

“But it also allows us to work with the local federations and help them grow their basketball in their countries. Help them get more boys and girls participating and playing basketball.

“At the same time, sports can bring so much more. It brings fitness, it can bring mental health, it can learn values, it can teach you how to work as a team. So it does a lot of other things.

“But from the NBA’s perspective, obviously we want to become the largest sport in the world. And by doing that, and getting more kids globally playing basketball, it is only going to help us reach that goal.”

It can be argued that attracting the youth of the United Kingdom to hoops has, in recent times, be the least of the problems.

Converting them into devotees – and significantly to world-class exponents of the sport – has been a challenge which has puzzled many and been truly solved by none.

“There was hope for a lot of growth after the Olympics,” notes Meyer. “Funding has always been an issue. And with football being the number one sport here, it makes it difficult.

“From a cultural perspective, I think funding is part of it but there’s other pieces. Unlike in the USA or certain countries like Lithuania, parents grew up playing football or following football.

“They’re more likely to take their child out to kick a football versus taking them out to play basketball.

“In the US, obviously, there’s American football, there’s baseball and basketball. But, most kids going through elementary school and through high school probably played some form of basketball.

“So then, it’s a little easier for those parents to go out and take their kids to shoot hoops versus to kick a ball, because they’re comfortable with it.”

That, he hopes, is where Jr. NBA can kick down a few doors, using the leverage of the brand – and the various grassroots strategies of the four home nations – to hook them early and keep them for life.

Later, those of a high standard may head to college across the Atlantic. The UK sends its brightest and best in droves, reportedly on scholarships in greater numbers than any other European nation.

And yet not since Joel Freeland decamped to the Trail Blazers following London 2012 have we despatched anyone to the NBA. Not since Luol Deng took his leave in 2019 has anyone with puncher’s chance of representing GB been in the biggest league of them all.

None immediately on the horizon either. At a time when Spain, France and Germany are shipping them in trucks.

Meyer, a more than interested observer, sees some flaws at close hand in his adopted homeland.

“It’s a combination of things,” he argues. “One is for those talented kids to find that pathway to get there and the support to get there. Whether, if they’re talented enough,, even bypassing the university and maybe going into Europe to play and develop.

“But it’s hard to say exactly why. Because there are pools of talent here. One thought in my mind is the possibility of these kids – versus the US or another country – start a little later in the UK.

“It’s harder to get access to facilities and be able to play every day. It’s not cheap, especially if you don’t have access to a gym.

“And it’s hard getting into one of the good basketball pockets, where there’s good coaching and good development, that will allow you to grow and have those coaches who can help push you – whether it’s to Europe or the university in the US.”

Hothousing coaches for the NBA, as an alternative, has been something the UK has done rather well. Nick Nurse, Chris Finch as heads of the bench in Toronto and Minnesota. Fab Flournoy and Phil Handy, with the Raptors and Lakers, as assistants who were prolific in the BBL.

Meyer has been the export in the opposite direction. Passing on insights gained coaching and analysis work under the likes of Gregg Popovich, Mike Dunleavy and Mike Brown.

His role has been him assist Pau Gasol at his youth camp in Spain in addition to a key role in the Basketball Without Borders initiatives.

A collegian at the University of San Diego, he came through the rite of passage of summer camps that honed skills and impressionable minds.

Another block, perhaps, missing in the foundations of British basketball?

“Luol (Deng) and his foundation and his camp, they do a good job of bringing the top talent together,” Meyer maintains.

“I know the (home nations) work from the national team level and the youth level to get the top talent.

“In the USA, I was fortunate enough to play in college and I was fortunate to be invited to some top camps in the US when I was in high school.

“What that allows you to see is the other best talent in the country and to be able to compete against them.

“From a gauging perspective, you see where you fit in that group, see how much work you have to do to continue to elevate to that level.

“And then also it’s important to be coached by different coaches, right? To have the exposure to different coaches with different mindsets and philosophies.

“And to play on different teams. Because as youth players, or players in general, even at the NBA level, if you’re in a system that doesn’t fit your game or your style, it’s going to be tough to succeed, right?

“So players having the ability to experience all those different aspects, and gauge where they are, and what they have to work on and develop to strive to that level … I think as a player you have to set goals and measure those goals whether it’s on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis to see how you’ve improved.

“And if you have improved.”

Neal Meyer was speaking as part of the ‘Jr. NBA Stay Active – Online’ programme, a series of virtual development sessions for youth across the UK, launched in collaboration with Basketball England, Basketball Wales and Basketball Scotland via OWQLO.

Image: NBA

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