WNBL: Jackson Gibbons' vision of empowering the future stars

With just 40 seconds remaining in the WNBL1 Playoff final, the City of London Academy had already secured victory over Endeavour Ipswich.

Yet, coach Jackson Gibbons, deeply invested in his team's success, was still guiding his girls from the sidelines.

At the time, the score was 72-56 - the eventual result - but Gibbons still strived for the best from his team, such is his enthusiasm and passion for the programme.

The team celebrated with Gibbons watching on the sideline, letting them have their moment, following his post-game embrace to his opposite number, Nick Drane. 

Unbeknownst to the girls, their head coach was sat on the bench, tears of joy streaming down his face. It wasn't just the victory of capturing a National League title that moved him, but also the realisation that this was his final game in charge at the WNBL1 level. 

“I’m so proud of these kids, man,” an emotional Gibbons said.

“The girls we have got have grown up so much this year and have allowed themselves to be successful, but I hope that both us at CoLA and Ipswich put on a great advert for British basketball and the women’s game. 

“This league deserves more publicity and a bigger following moving forward. There are some incredible teams and some great games going on here, and I hope it gets the appreciation that it deserves.”

In the seventh final CoLA and Ipswich have been involved in, there is a lot of mutual respect, and Gibbons was quick to heap praise on Drane following their final chapter of competition.

Without question, incoming head coach Brian Nguru will look to start his own chapter of future battles with the Ipswich play-caller.

“I want everyone to understand how much credit Ipswich deserves,” Gibbons said. 

“That’s where my emotion takes me. Every time there is a winner, there is also a team that doesn’t get the result that they want. 

“I want to show my appreciation for their commitment to the league and the things they have achieved this season. It gives me a rich feeling and appreciation to know that we beat a team as good as Ipswich.”

Jackson’s vision came true

It was 2012 when Gibbons had an image of launching a basketball programme to empower young schoolkids in South East London.

The City of London Academy website says: “At CoLA Southwark, we set the highest standards, regularly producing not only elite basketball players, but role models for society. Education comes first, and we demand 100 per cent dedication from the classroom to the court,”   

That statement exemplifies Gibbons’ coaching philosophy, and in 2013, the basketball programme began.

They won their first piece of senior silverware in 2017, beating Team Solent Kestrels 67-53 in the WNBL1 Playoff final to announce themselves on the National League stage.

After coming up short in the 2021 Playoff final against a star-studded Ipswich side, they stormed to a first WNBL1 double, scooping the League and Playoff crown a season later. 

Add another Playoff final appearance in 2023 and five WEABL titles to a bulging trophy cabinet that graces the City of London Academy corridors.

All in all, 19 national titles were won, with five at the senior level. All done with professionalism and grace, with teenagers mature beyond their years, preparing for adulthood.

As a bonus, Gibbons has won Coach of the Year an astonishing 12 times at all levels. But he is always the first to say it isn’t about him.

“I’m so proud of these kids and the opportunities that they carve out for themselves,” he said.

“Honestly, it’s about the kids; I’m nothing. If I have a skill, it’s empowering young people and getting them to realise how great they can be, and I want them to always remember the life lessons they get at CoLA.

“We’re humble, we don’t think we’re better than anyone else, we come to work with a workman-like mentality, our hard hat and a lunch bell, and we go to work.

“We just want to be good people. I’ll push and challenge referees, but I’ll never be disrespectful. Our kids don’t talk to the referees; I won’t allow it; I tell them to focus on the game.” 

Another love

Jackson and his staff, including Nguru and Jay Williams, have guided the future of British basketball stars into the next chapter of their careers, on the court and off it.

Players such as Emily O’Connell, Molly Lavin, Beeban Jikiemi-Pearson, sisters Irkpitan and Isi Ozzy-Momodu, Tobi Lawal, Clemson Edomwonyin and many more have been mentored by Gibbons and his highly knowledgeable coaching crew.

Most importantly, they have taken their own life lessons at CoLA and are succeeding in their personal journeys.

As a coach and a teacher, Gibbons is thankful that his teams are smart enough to know never to soak him in water after a trophy success, but he has had some embarrassing moments that he can now look back on and chuckle.

“I’ve had funny moments of giving an emotional half-time talk and chewing gum sprays out my mouth across the floor, and I can see that they all want to burst out laughing, but I don’t think they’re brave enough at the time and in the moment,” Gibbons says with a smile and another tear.

“Man, I just want to empower growth in young people, and Brian [Nguru] is going to keep that legacy going.”

What’s next for Jackson Gibbons? Well, he is stepping away but not leaving CoLA behind. He aims to still be around, and maybe he’ll have time for his other passion: the Baltimore Ravens.

“I hope I’ll have more time to watch the NFL. Knowing me, I probably won’t, but go Ravens.”


Main image credit - Luke Simcock

Words by John Hobbs