BETTY CODONA: 1938-2022

Tributes have been paid to British basketball’s most successful coach, Betty Codona OBE, who has passed away.

Born in 1938, her death was announced on Friday by Sheffield Hatters, the club she founded in 1961 and then spent six decades deploying it as a powerful vehicle to get people into basketball – as well as winning countless titles and turning it into the greatest winning programme that UK hoops has ever seen.

But it was about people foremost, more than prizes.

The enthusiasm, dedication and skills of Codona came out in everything she did. As did her passion for creating opportunity. A potent advocate for the game, the former teacher rarely pulled punches but habitually hit the mark.

An energetic presence even in attending her final game less than a week before her death, she was a trailblazer on and off the court.

A force of nature, the inclusive and family environment that Codona fostered within Hatters is something she was fiercely proud of. It was a sport that captivated her – and she embraced it fully.

“I was at college training to be a teacher, I played the usual, traditional girls’ sports like netball,” she recounted.

“I loved netball, but one day after we finished training the men came in and started playing basketball so we stuck around for a bit, had a look at it.

“I enjoyed it, basketball gives you more room, more opportunity for creativity and personal contribution on a court, rather than netball which is quite rigid.”

She started coaching her pupils but when they had no outlet to take part after leaving school, she found – as she often did – a way.

Evening sessions were arranged in a gym on Hatfield House Lane. The Hatfield Hatters – as it was originally known – were born, initially playing against men’s teams but then becoming part of a first generation of female clubs across the country.

When the first ever National Cup was staged in 1965, Codona was on the losing side, beaten by London. Thereafter, she was rarely the vanquished, leading Hatters to an unprecedented collection of trophies as head coach between 1989 and 2009, prior to moving on to become the club’s chair.

The list of honours that Hatters snapped up under her stewardship from the sidelines is staggering, with Codona having accumulated an array of basketball titles along with the BBC Unsung Hero for Yorkshire. All of those fed into the 65 in total that Hatters have collected since she founded the organisation.

Widening the net further, social cohesion and community work was also a major factor in the awards that she was both given and in contention for.

As well as richly deserving her OBE, late last year, at 83-years-old, she was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year Award.

“I never thought I was playing a role in growing the game; I just enjoyed it, I loved playing the game. I felt I was part of it, but not a particular part,” she told the Yorkshire Post last year. “My focus wasn’t directed that way, it was just simply ‘come on let’s get playing, let’s get more girls playing’.”

Formerly a chair of the then-English Basketball Association, she pushed for the sport to be more ambitious in staking its claim in the landscape. “It’s vital that we put basketball on the map,” she said at the outset of her tenure. Later, she would remain frustrated at chances lost and a pointed critic of the structures that held it in check.

Codona, fittingly, had the Women’s British Basketball League Trophy named after her.

WBBL Chair, Jim Saker said: “When I first became Chair of the WBBL, my first official duty was to present flowers to Betty on her 80th birthday before the Betty Codona Trophy Final. It was my first meeting with her, and from then on, she became both a source of advice but more importantly, a respected friend. She will be sadly missed.”

British Basketball Federation interim chair, Toni Minichiello said: “The term legendary is overused in sport, but it is fitting in Betty’s case. She has been and continued to be the lynchpin for female basketball and basketball in general in Sheffield and across the country for decades.

“Her tireless effort, spirit and influence and have done so much good for the game and for the young people who come through – and continue to come through – the Hatters club. She is going to be sadly missed by many, but she leaves a dynasty behind her in her family and the club that will continue her brilliant work long into the future.”

In announcing her passing, Betty’s family described her as: “An inspiration for all, she was determined, relentless, intelligent and most of all passionate. Betty’s ethos will live on through every female who has represented the Hatters. Everyone here within the Hatters are deeply saddened but we stand united to carry on Betty’s values and beliefs as we respect the past and we will forge the future.”

A matriarch in every sense, her two daughters Vanessa Ellis and Lorraine Gayle who played to the highest level of basketball in England throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Vanessa, who succeeded her mother as Hatters coach, is also now the assistant with Great Britain.

Codona’s grandchildren will continue the legacy: Tyler is a Hatters coach; Georgia, a star player for Hatters and a GB cap; Quinn a prospect playing for Capo d’Orlando in Italy.

There will be 24 seconds of applause before each game across the BBL, WBBL, and NBL this weekend, the leagues confirmed.

Photo: Instagram/Hatters
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