Birmingham’s 2022 basketball icons can inspire next generation

The scene is set, over 6000 sports men and women from across 72 nations and territories will converge on Birmingham this summer in a global spectacle of sport and human performance.  

There’s no doubt that the third biggest sporting event in the world will inspire many people across the four corners of the United Kingdom, and Basketball England is aiming to engage one million of them off the back of the 3x3 competition, which is making its debut at Birmingham 2022.  

BE’s Talent Pathway and Programme Manager Sam Messam believes the Commonwealth Games’ aspirational narrative and creation of role models can influence and empower talented young basketball players.  

“Academically, we may wish to refer to this as the festival effect,” said Messam.  

“Whenever you have a large sporting event, one of the potential outputs is the creation of role models. For Basketball England, getting kids from our Aspire Programme to see the Commonwealth Games’ athletes is a motivating experience, one that will hopefully drive them to that level of play.  

“Whether they reach it or not, doesn’t really matter, it’s about empowering and enthusing them to play the game and I think that’s what’s important. If they reach the next level, whatever that is, then that’s a bonus.” 

‘Talent is open to anybody and everybody’ 

Messam’s role is to lead, manage, develop and improve BE’s talent system and networks, with a specific focus on talent identification, structures and processes within the Player Pathway, which includes the Aspire, England Development, and England Talent Programmes, as well as supporting the GB Youth programmes. 

BE’s Talent Pathway consists of four tiers of progression and showcases the various stages of development for basketball players from the age of 11 through to senior GB representation.  

At the base of that model is the Aspire Programme, which is designed for 11-15-year-old basketball players, who are selected from a talent pool of thousands to develop their basketball and life skills. As Head of Talent and Performance Steve Bucknall says, it’s about ‘facilitating opportunities that create better players and thus create better national teams, and more professional players’.  

Messam thinks the message – especially in a year where interest in the sport is heightened – should also reiterate that ‘talent is not one demographic’ and that BE’s programmes are open to anybody and everybody. 

“From my point of view, it’s about opening the door to the pathway and getting people to understand and appreciate it’s not a socially elite club. Yes, there are talent indicators, we want to promote a level of performance to be able to participate, but actually it is open to anybody and everybody. We want more girls to participate, as well as players from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds.”  

Hyson Green Boys’ Club 

The former University of Lincoln Senior Lecturer in sports coaching and National Teaching Fellow has played ball since school and says it was used as the carrot in his schooling to help him manage his behaviour. 

“If I did my work, I got to play basketball,” said the Nottingham-native. But really it was at Nottingham’s Hyson Green Boys’ Club where his love-affair with the game bloomed and ultimately set him on the path to where he is today.  

“Dead opposite my house was this club, a community centre of sorts. It was where, community leaders – strong black, positive role models worked in a number of sports and arts and crafts. It was what we would call today a diversionary scheme. It was trying to keep us off the streets, trying to keep us out of trouble. 

“There was a basketball player named Lloyd Patterson, who took on the position of basketball coach, and he took me under his wing. I wasn’t particularly good or tall, or athletic and for a number of years I just sat and watched. I watched all sorts of talented players from the Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester area ply their trade on the hardwood. One summer, from nowhere, they invited me to join in and I started to play and enjoy it. I took those skills back into school and it was almost like a circular relationship – the more I learnt in the club the more I took back into school.  

“I guess that’s where my most fond and positive memories of the game started. It was about community, it was about social involvement, it was about keeping me out of trouble in a city that was full of trouble. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it didn’t give me the sense that I wanted to be a talented basketball player. It gave me a sense of belonging, of being a strong black, positive role model. And that’s what got me into basketball coaching. [I thought] ‘now, I want to give back’.” 

The academic coach 

Influenced by his coach at the Nottingham Knights, the legendary Curtis Xavier, Messam recognised he had coaching in his DNA, so at 26, he quit his retail job and returned to college, before going to university five times to hone his craft.  

He currently holds a UKCC Level 4 Coaching certification, is due to graduate in the 2022/2023 class of the FIBA FECC programme – a prestigious European coaching certificate – and is completing his Professional Doctorate Studies in Elite Coaching Practice, looking at coaching behaviours. In a non-exhaustive list, Messam has coached English national teams, Yorkshire regional squads, the University of Warwick and Bradford Dragons basketball teams and worked as head basketball coach at the Bradford College Basketball Academy. In 2021, he took up a position at the City of Leeds Basketball Club, run by BBL Cup winning coach Matt Newby, to lead the U16 boys’ premier team.  

What excites Messam, however, is the emergence of what he calls ‘the academic coach’; that is former players and non-players studying coaching academically and making game-time decisions underpinned by theory. 

“There are multiple ways to enter coaching and I think what we have [had in the past] is lots of players who have transitioned into coaching [from playing]. Now all of a sudden, we’ve got coaches who studied coaching at undergrad, postgrad level and are bringing a sense of informed position to their practice.  

“They can wax lyrical about the science of pedagogy, sociology or psychology; they can bring that to their practice. In education, we used to refer to that as research-informed practice and I think for coaching that’s where we need to be. I’m not saying within competition that we don’t rely on instinct or experience to shape our decision making, of course there is an element of that, but what underpins the cognitions of an effective coach is the application of theory. It’s exciting because more theory is being utilised to our game.” 

‘Basketball is a very powerful tool’ 

For the 51-year-old, basketball isn’t just a game, it’s a ‘very powerful tool’ that can increase physical and mental well-being through participation, promote agency, be used as a vehicle for social justice and create people ready to contribute to society. When asked about what keeps him motivated to coach and get better at it, there’s one memory embedded in his mind.  

“Early in my coaching career, I was at Hyson Green Boys’ Club preparing for our weekly run, when this one young lad came into the hall, he was visibly disabled but full of life. You could see his excitement at just being in the sports hall with these tall players; with basketballs rolling around the court and music playing in the background. He picked one of the orange Spalding balls up and attempted to throw it into the basket.  

“It wasn’t happening for him, so I went over and hoisted him above my shoulders, and he put the ball into the basket, and he literally jumped out of my arms and went running out of the gym, shouting ‘mum I scored’. And I guess without it sounding corny, that drives my entire coaching ethos. I don’t have a trophy cabinet full of wins, I don’t. My wins are the Christmas cards, the birthday and ‘now I’m in university’ cards. It’s the smile on that little boy’s face – that’s what motivates me to coach. That’s what motivates me to turn up two-three times a week to empower young people, to facilitate learning and be there for some young person that might just need somebody other than their parents and their family.  

“Coaching is very much a relational activity. It’s about emancipation, growth, and cohesion, developing a unit that can work together. Young people finding out ways to solve problems in order to be successful. And that success doesn’t mean win and lose. If after two years they understand teamwork, responsibility, leadership and feel empowered and have a voice that’s heard. If we wrap all these important life skills into a young confident person that is socially ready to contribute to society, then I’ve done a really good job. That’s far more powerful than a win or a loss.  

“I’m quite a deep thinker and a reflective person and everything I do has to have a purpose to it. I’m not saying I do lots of great work or anything, but I do try to connect the dots. What’s important to me is to be a role model. And I don’t know whether I am, I keep trying to be, I aspire to be. I understand identity and agency. I understand what it is to be a person of colour. I understand the responsibility that comes with it all, and I try to guide and support young people. As a lecturer I spent a lot of my time working with young people to try and get them to understand their role in life and how to be more self-driven and aware of their contributions. 

“Part of the motivation to come to Basketball England was being able to shape national level thinking and have an input into the systems and processes that underpin a young person’s talent experience. The way that we recruit, the way we project our messages in regard to opportunities for both players and coaches is an important part of that. And I like to feel I can contribute to this agenda.” 

Basketball has the power to change lives. The #GameTime campaign will aim to raise awareness of the positive impact that our sport can have on people no matter who they are or where they are from. 

Basketball England aims to engage one million people in basketball via the Commonwealth Games 2022, 3x3 and more.  

Whether you want to: 

  • Support Team England 
  • #GetInvolved as a player, coach, official, volunteer or fan 
  • Or improve your local court with #ProjectSwish 

...regardless of age, gender or background, across every part of the basketball family, it's #GameTime!