Three years after his abrupt departure from Leeds Force and two years removed from professional basketball in the city ceasing to exist, the man most responsible for developing a pathway for the sport in Leeds is on the verge of his greatest coaching accomplishment.
Tomorrow, Matt Newby takes his Worcester Wolves team into the final of the BBL Cup against Bristol Flyers in Birmingham.
It is a quite remarkable turn of events for the 42-year-old from Harrogate, who spent eight years building the basketball programme at Leeds Carnegie and taking it into the professional realm with Leeds Force. Three years into that journey, having overseen a run to the BBL play-offs in their second season, Newby was dispensed with.
“It had run its course,” is how he diplomatically reflects on it now. But the change on the bench, as well as in the boardroom as chief executive Mark Mills also left that summer of 2017, saw the soul of the Leeds programme ripped out and within a year the team had folded.
So Newby went back to what he knew best, working in the community trying to develop the game of basketball.
“I focused my attention on City of Leeds Basketball Club, the youth programme, which we’d developed over the years, first through Leeds Carnegie and then Leeds Force,” says Newby, who set up the City of Leeds Basketball Club in the mid-2000s as a way of getting young children into the sport.
It is a club that caters for five to 16-year-olds with members than advancing to the Leeds Basketball Academy, based at Allerton High School, once they turn 16.
“I also continued my work with the Academy and my role at Leeds Beckett University with the BUCS programme, but I was just not in the professional domain.
“So I spent my time focusing on moving the community programme forward and also building my resume by looking internationally for partnerships. We had one with Red Star Belgrade, where they bring coaches over to camp in Leeds; and a women’s programme in Greece.
“I tried to use my time well by fostering new links that would develop the programme.”
Then last summer, out of nowhere, the long-established Worcester Wolves came calling and offered Newby a route back to the top table of professional basketball in Britain.
“When you’re out of the game for a period of time, there is often a point at which you consider whether you’re going to get another look,” says Newby.
“I’d had a couple of people from Europe contact me but that didn’t progress. But this came at the right time, and I guess my resume suited it.”
Newby’s work in education helped. Having grown the programme at Leeds Carnegie University and then overseen that transition into the professional realm, he was suitably placed to work with the Wolves at a club that has ties with the University of Worcester.
The Wolves, though, are long established, and unlike Leeds they did not sever their ties with the university once they made the step up to professionalism.
“We got a lot right in Leeds,” says Newby, on reflection, of a relationship in which use of university facilities was retained.
“The programme here in Worcester is embedded within the university, it’s very much a part of the local community.
“Worcester Warriors (rugby union) are the only other pro club, the landscape affords you the opportunity to offer a different proposition and it’s been lapped up by the local fraternity. They’re very passionate down here, we get about 2,000 people a game.
“By virtue of hard work it’s been driven forward, it’s been welcomed by the local community. Basketball in Worcester doesn’t have the competition it did in Leeds with five rugby league clubs to start with, Leeds United, Yorkshire cricket, plus you’ve got the resurgence of netball with Leeds Rhinos coming on board.
“One of the great things about Leeds is it’s got a rich fabric of sport in the city, but for emerging sports or even established ones like rugby union, it is hard to keep your head above water.”
Basketball remains a part of day-to-day life for the youngsters of Leeds, if not in a professional capacity.
The City of Leeds Basketball Club is represented by 10 teams in national junior leagues every week while the basketball academy is also well-stocked.
“On a weekly basis you have 150 to 200 kids playing basketball,” says Newby, who remains available to both programmes in an advisory capacity.
“Through the community outreach work where coaches go into schools and deliver basketball in the Leeds and West Yorkshire area, they are working with 500 to 1,000 children a week.
“Basketball continues to grow, it’s always going to have an attraction to young people.
“But without the BBL franchise there isn’t a game available that they can readily go and catch. There isn’t that buzz that there was with the Leeds Carnegie and the Leeds Force programmes.”
The demise of the Force has also created a talent drain. Once Leeds club and academy members mature, they have to leave the city if they want to progress their careers.
A handful have already done so – Daniel Evans, Micah Savery-Richards and Vasja and Jaka Pandza have all played on scholarships at US colleges.They were all given a chance by Newby to play in the BBL team.
“We tried to give all the Leeds lads an opportunity to play with the men and compete at a very high level of competition,” he says. “That is one negative of not having that senior team there. If a kid is showing exceptional promise, then the Leeds fraternity does not necessarily have that option now.”
Newby’s ethos of blooding youngsters is being realised in Worcester – and it is blossoming. He arrived last summer with a blank canvas in terms of recruitment, and quickly set about building a competitive team, one that tomorrow bids for the club’s first silverware in six years.
“We’ve found consistency early, we’ve developed a new ethos and philosophy as a programme,” continues Newby. “I’m really happy that we’ve made such quick progress with a young, dynamic team.
“It’s a very dynamic and forward-thinking set-up, the back office is very professional and I’m just thankful for the opportunity they gave me.”
Newby’s belief in Worcester is reciprocated.
Mick Donovan, Worcester’s managing director, said: “Matt has had a significant impact since joining the club, both on and off the court and to be competing in this final with a newly-assembled team is encouraging, to say the least.
“The Wolves supporters have really embraced both Matt and the new team.”
Just a pity he had to go out of Leeds to find it.