Mike Tuck happy to have played the long game with Sheffield Sharks

It began with an email, and required a leap of faith by the man himself, but little could Mike Tuck have realised that a train journey north one rainy winter’s evening 12 years ago would shape the rest of his life.

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME: , Sheffield Sharks' Mike Tuck Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Tuck was an out-of-work professional basketball player back in November 2009.

After graduating college in Maryland, the Canadian who fell in love with the game as a 10-year-old had managed to carve out enough of a living in the professional leagues of Cyprus, Luxembourg and France to think he was capable of a few more years shooting hoops.

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But when he was cut by his team in France a few months into the season, he was faced with the prospect of returning to Canada.

Mike Tuck scores for the Sheffield Sharks against Glasgow Rocks back in October 2018. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Instead he gambled on a family link in England, the country of his mother’s birth, and in the back of his mind there was an email from Atiba Lyons, the head coach of the Sheffield Sharks, earlier that summer wondering if he would be interested in coming to South Yorkshire.

“I was contracted to my team in France at the time, so couldn’t pursue Atiba’s interest,” begins Tuck. “But things in France were not going well, I got released, but instead of flying home I flew to England and just thought I’ll wait here until another job pops up.

“I stayed in London with family and during that first week sent an email to the Sharks just saying I was here, I’m available and I have a British passport.

“I remember the train ride up to Sheffield, a cold, rainy night in November. I went to one of their evening training sessions.

THE LONG GAME: Sheffield Sharks' Mike Tuck Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“They had a player in my position who got injured the week before so it was almost as if the stars aligned.

“After the session I went out for dinner with Atiba and the general manager Sarah Backovic and they offered me a contract on the spot.

“I hopped on the train back to London to grab my stuff, got back on the train to Sheffield and I’ve never left.”

Two weeks later on December 5, 2009, Tuck made his Sheffield Sharks debut. Two months later he helped them win the BBL Cup.

Sheffield Sharks' Mike Tuck Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“Being a player overseas is hard,” he recalls of his early days.

“From conversations with guys about playing overseas I knew it was going to be a turbulent ride. You never know what team you’re going to end up on until you get there; some teams are great to you, some teams treat you like nothing.

“I’d already experienced some tough times, so I knew the situation. But I was still pretty hell-bent on playing professional basketball.

“When I came to England, Sheffield were top of the league and it was a great situation to come into.

Mike Tuck, the longtime captain of Sheffield Sharks. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

“I’d only ever been on mid-table teams and then we ended up winning the BBL Cup at the end of January.

“That’s what really hooked me into the Sharks, and not only the club, the BBL. Getting that taste of silverware was huge for me. It was a dream come true.”

Twelve years on, Tuck is still living his dream. Last night he donned a Sharks jersey for the 464th time in a BBL Cup game at Newcastle Eagles, the second highest appearance-maker in the 30-year history of the club.

His is a unique story in British basketball. Not many North American imports – not even those lucky enough to have British passports like he had and which frees him of the import rules that inhibit clubs – stick around for much of their careers.

“I’ve had two three-year contracts, there’s a two-year in there and the rest have been year-to-year,” says Tuck, 37, who is now in his 13th season with the Sharks.

“I’ve had other offers. There were other opportunities in the BBL and overseas, but for me I was very happy with the club, with the way they treated me, the silverware we were winning.

“I met my girl here. I was familiar with England from family holidays but the accents in Yorkshire were a bit strong. There was a lot of smiling and nodding from me in those early years.

“But the people around the club, the fans, were so endearing, that that was another thing that attracted me to keep coming back.”

He was also able to supplement his pay packet by putting his college degree in marketing and communications to good use, first as a marketing manager for a local law firm, and then for the last three years in the same position for the Sharks.

“If it wasn’t for the Sharks I wouldn’t be playing today. They’ve made everything so easy for me; offering me that job, letting me get that experience. I’m lucky to have a job where I get to promote a club I’ve fallen in love with.

“With playing and working at the same time it can be turbulent and stressful, constantly spinning many plates but I wouldn’t have it any other way; still playing and working in the front office of a professional sports team; it’s a dream.”

His contribution on the court remains consistently high, even if there are a few more grey hairs on the head than there were back in December 2009.

He leads virtually all of Sheffield’s statistical categories, good and bad due to his longevity, and is still powering up the court or coaching from the sidelines.

The longest stretch of games he missed for the club came in 2018 when he had the honour of captaining England at the Commonwealth Games.

How long can he go on for?

“We’ll see. I’m no spring chicken,” he laughs. “I’d love to keep playing but you don’t want to be one of those guys hobbling up and down the court, overstaying your welcome and blocking the next generation.

“I still feel I have something to give. I’ll keep going until I feel I like I can’t.”

There is a greater purpose to any basketball player’s life when they play in Britain, namely to help grow the sport. It is a task Tuck has thrown himself into, on the court with his play, and off the court with his position within the club.

“Right off the bat you know as a player you have eyes on you, that kids are looking up to you, that you have to watch what you say, how you handle yourself. You have to act professionally all the time,” says Tuck, who also works as an analyst on Sky Sports’ BBL and NBA coverage.

“Typically guys come in for one year and then they’re out, so building those relationships between the fans and within the community is something I had to learn along the way.

“You realise though that’s it’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than the club, you’re a role model for basketball.

“When the Sharks announced me as captain, 2011 I think it was, that’s when I thought ‘okay, the club is putting this leadership role on my shoulders, this is a big deal, a little bit more responsibility on my plate. Something greater’.

“I never thought I would ever be an ambassador for basketball in this country but promoting basketball is something I’ve always tried to put my stamp on.

“And there’s a lot of momentum with basketball in the UK right now. I think lockdown had a lot to do with that, maybe it was parents being at home with their kids, realising they don’t just have to play football, basketball is fun and easy to play. All you need is a ball and a pair of shoes.

“We’ve seen at our open sessions for Under-12, 14s and 16s, there’s been an explosion and they can’t fit all the kids into the sessions.

“Even if it’s just a couple of kids who have picked up a basketball because of me coming to Sheffield, that’s good with me.”