Leeds basketball rivals unite in bid to show power of the sport in the city

Sport is nothing without its rivalries. Prost v Senna. Borg against McEnroe. Manchester United-Liverpool. Lakers-Celtics.

Rivalries between the very best based on a fear of losing to the other drives interest in that particular sport.

There are also rivalries in which two opposing forces work together for the betterment of their game.

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Such a collaboration is occuring in Leeds today when two rival clubs from opposite ends of the city unite in a unique event aimed at channelling participation and growing the game of basketball.

Leeds Schools Basketball held earlier this year at Beckett College.

The first Basketball Showcase takes place this afternoon at Leeds Beckett University Sports Arena when the teenage players of City of Leeds Basketball Club from the north and their counterparts from Let’s Do More CIC (LDM) to the south go head-to-head in a series of boys and girls games.

The two men who have brought this together are former BBL coach Matt Newby of City of Leeds and Loran Lewis of LDM.

“We were at a game back in January, we were sat right here,” says Lewis as he looks out at the packed basketball courts of the Leeds Beckett arena this week during a Leeds and District Schools tournament.

“Our first team Under-16s was playing their second team Under-16s, and I just said to Matt I thought it would be better for the city if we played our two strongest teams against each other.”

MISSING IN ACTION: Leeds Force's Tre Bennett in action against Surrey Scorchers back in 2017 - the city needs a senior team playing at a decent level of the game. Picture courtesy of Alex Daniels

Newby takes up the story. “The idea was to promote both programmes in the city to ensure there was an offer for all the kids. The basic premise is a collaborative project with an emphasis on highlighting what the clubs have to offer from a community, development and performance perspective, but also promoting competitive sport.

“In basketball normally there might be one pre-eminent club in the city and their nearest rival is in the next city, not across the city. Often there is a rivalry between clubs but they won’t work together, which makes this very unique. It’s come together very quickly. When an idea like that comes to the fore and you see it as being a catalyst for good, then it’s important that both parties work really hard to drive things forward.”

That drive has brought about today’s event which begins at 12.15pm with the two clubs’ Under-16s first teams going head to head, continues with a demonstration of 3-on-3 which will be part of the Commonwealth Games programme contested by the girls teams, and concludes late afternoon with the cream of the Under-18s programmes tipping off against each other.

“This competition, hopefully in its purest sense,” says Newby, “will elevate the status of the game in the city, simply by more children experiencing it, being able to identify with the uniform, whatever that uniform is.

DRIVING FORCE: Loran Lewis of LDM (left) and City of Leeds's MAtt Newby, former head coach of Leeds Force.

“When we got talking about it we talked about the rivalries in other cities between big football clubs – there’s nothing wrong with being a sky blue or a red in Manchester – you are unified by the love of the game. If we can get these kids to enjoy the game first, recognise there’s outlets and pathways for them in the city, whatever shirt they wear, those outlets and pathways evolve then we’ll be in good shape.”

Lewis continues: “Both clubs have a reach far beyond Leeds. If you look at it geographically, City of Leeds is based in the north, we’re based in the south, but both clubs take kids from all over. It’s why it’s so important we’re having this collaborative approach to doing it.

“The whole tagline of the basketball showcase is community, unity and opportunity so we’re hoping through this event we can show the power of basketball.”

While basketball is a sport that struggles for any mainstream cut-through in a modern society obsessed by the sporting elite, the game’s proudest accomplishment is being the second-most played sport in the country amongst teenagers, behind football. And those youngsters playing basketball are generally more culturally diverse than any other sport.

“The area of Leeds in which LDM is based are some of the most deprived areas of the city,” says Lewis. “We work predominantly with kids that otherwise wouldn’t have basketball opportunities and as a result of that we’ve got players from a range of backgrounds.

“Our Under-16s team has got six or seven different nationalities in a squad of 12 – African, Eastern European, Caribbean.

“Just like football, basketball is a language that unites different cultures.”

Newby adds: “When you’re in certain areas of the city it lends itself to kids from a certain socio-economic status, but both clubs I feel cater for the masses.

“Ultimately whoever the young person is who walks through your door you’ve got to do the very best you can to offer an environment that gives them the best opportunity to succeed.”

LDM are the new kids on the block. Lewis only founded the club in 2017 when he wanted to get kids in the south of the city involved in sport. Newby has been promoting youth basketball since 2007, the name of his club City of Leeds going through various guises.

He has been to to the very top of the sport, coaching Leeds Carnegie and then the British Basketball League franchise born out of the university programme, Leeds Force, as well as leading Worcester Wolves to cup final success in the professional game.

Having given kids in Leeds a pathway to the top level once before, he is keen to play a role in doing so again.

“There are academy offers in the city,” he says of the existing pathway. “There’s now one at Leeds City College, there’s Allerton High School, there’s one out at Calderdale now and a basketball offer at Notre Dame.

“So for post-16 there are offers, and it depends on the child, what’s the best pathway for them academically.

“Thereafter it’s about signposting them to the right university, or abroad – either west to the US for scholarships, or for someone who is exceptional and had signifcant talent at an early age, there might be the option to go to Europe.

“But the unfortunate thing after the demise of Leeds Force is there isn’t that senior aspect in the city. Aspirationally the kids don’t have that ability to walk into a court and see somebody from their home town be a hero, as cliched as that is.

“That may change in the future, but for now we’re focused on tightening up the proposition for the youth.”

Investment has gone into the BBL in recent months and more franchises are being created.

A team in Reading has been knocking on the door for a while and one from Birmingham, backed by former NBA champion Hakeem Olajuwon, appears ready to step up.

Could there be a return of a professional team in Leeds?

“The size of the city, the appetite for basketball, there is the opportunity there for somebody to go again with a franchise,” believes Newby, “but the reality is there needs to be a stronger blueprint in terms of the business model and ultimately the city still doesn’t have a sport specific facility that would be able to host that.

“My understanding is there’s been some expressions of interest but whoever comes in has to do it right. The city deserves that, its own identity within the professional ranks of the domestic game.”

For now, then, the focus is on youth.

“In my opinion,” says Newby, “there’s an opportunity for us to drive the basketball community to a higher level, to develop players to another level and offer a better performance outlet between the programmes.

“However, Saturday plays out it’s a benchmark for both clubs, an opportunity to expose people who have not experienced a game from a spectators’ perspective.

“It’s giving kids the chance to compete against each other, whether they’re from Halton Moor, Chapeltown, Alwoodley – they’re getting an opporunity by putting on an LDM shirt or a City of Leeds shirt.”

Lewis concludes: “The only way is it’s going to happen in Leeds is when clubs that do have the ability to work together, do work together.

“I still think we’re missing a trick with basketball when it comes to that inclusive aspect of sport, but by combining our two programmes for a one-off event, we’re at least putting more eyes on it.”