Derby Ballers: Year of success sees East Midlands club go from strength-to-strength

A little over a year ago, Derby Ballers didn’t exist. Now they’re helping players across the East Midlands to enjoy the game they love.

Born from the work of Karl Darnley, alongside help from founding committee members Oskar Ociepa (of BBL’s Guildford Heat, now Surrey Scorchers fame), and Lukasz Bartoszewicz, the Midlands club have enjoyed a successful maiden season both on and off the court.

That work culminated in last month’s East Midlands Basketball Tournament, where six teams from across the region met up for a fantastic day of basketball, providing an opportunity to play, make friends and compete for over 100 players.

“I never imagined when the club started that in just over a year we’d be holding the first East Midlands Tournament in years, if not decades,” said Darnley.

“I wanted to build a club that brought likeminded players together to enjoy the sport and give something for individuals as an outlet to today’s busy modern world. With no barriers to entry, any one from any walk of life is welcome.

“With 100 players involved, holding nine games from group stages through to the overall finals, it made for an exhausting but very much worthwhile 12 hours of basketball.”

Kettering Phoenix ran out as eventual tournament winners

Raising awareness

It would be Northamptonshire’s Kettering Phoenix that would grab the honours after a nail biting 69-67 victory over Nottinghamshire’s Hyson Green Hustlers, a fitting end to a tournament that provided another step in the Ballers’ ongoing journey from modest beginnings.

Originally volunteering as a youth basketball coach and heavily involved with local club Chilwell Comets, Darnley crossed paths with Basketball England’s Services to Basketball award winner Austin Grant, who introduced him to the Level One coaching course.

Within six months and still under the watchful support and motivation of Grant, Darnley had completed both his Level One and Level Two coaching awards.

At the same time, he was still trying to find somewhere to play as a mature adult, wanting to play at the right level and in the right environment.

With limited success, he decided to create his own club, which later became Derby Ballers. Established in February 2023, by August the club were in talks with the local Sherwood League about entering a team into their competitions.

Derby went 10-8 and finished fifth in their debut campaign, solid though not spectacular, and it was Grant who once again pushed Darnley and the Ballers in another direction.

“In the background, Austin was still encouraging me to do more and suggested holding a tournament,” admits Darnley.

“After putting out some feelers for help, Martin Ford (FIBA Europe Commissioner and BE Chair of the East Midlands region) contacted me to see if he could support our plans.

“At that point I then approached Sport England for financial assistance in getting the club up and running as well as funding the tournament.

“We pitched the tournament as an opportunity to make people aware of basketball and promote it in the local region, which is exactly what happened.”

Hard work and dedication

The tournament involved Northamptonshire’s eventual winners Kettering Phoenix, Lincolnshire’s Lincoln Lightning, Derbyshire’s Ilkeston Outlaws, Nottinghamshire’s Hyson Green Hustlers and Leicestershire’s Groby Basketball Club, plus hosts Derby Ballers.

The six teams were split into two pools and played three games in the group stage with the top two teams progressing to semi-finals and then the final. The event then concluded with an awards ceremony, at which Kettering were present with a metal platter trophy to commemorate the tournament.

“Thank you to Karl for all your hard work in the preparation and delivery of a great event,” said Ford, following the event.

“Congratulations to Kettering on winning a hard-fought final, thank you to all the table and floor officials, you did a great job, and thanks again to Karl and Derby Ballers, great work!”

Basketball England’s Club & Volunteers Development Manager Nick Holloway added: “As always, it is fantastic to see the hard work and dedication that our member clubs are putting into the game.

“I’m delighted that the East Midlands tournament was a success, and we excited to work with Derby and other clubs within the region to build on that success going forward.”


All image credits - Laura Folkes Photography