Bringing the WBBL to the masses!

naylor1I’ve been a regular on Chesterfield-based Spire Radio this season as part of the sports coverage from 2pm to 6pm on Saturday’s. They have Chesterfield FC sewn up so I have tended to follow one of the local non-league sides, doing half-time and full-time reports, following up with a slot on the week’s basketball.

However, when the weather has bitten into the football, as it does invariably at this time of the year, I have managed to get some coverage of the WBBL on to the show. This week I was down at All Saints for the Westfield Health Sheffield Hatters against Team Northumbria, having covered the Hatters against Nottingham Wildcats earlier in the season.

How many sports can you see a host of international players for the measly price of two quid? Not many! Well the WBBL is the exception. Sheffield and Great Britain’s Helen Naylor was to play a huge part in the game. Team Northumbria were up to a roster of eight after beating Caledonia Pride by 63-62 with just six fit players the week before. Sadly one of their internationals, Hannah Shaw, didn’t make it on court but was present on the bench.

Northumbria were forced into an early timeout at 16-6 but fought back to within eight at 30-22 at the end of the first quarter. They reduced that deficit to seven by halftime with the score at 55-48. There was little to choose between the two teams. Naylor had scored 17 for the Hatters and Axetievas (who drew apologies from the commentator!) contributed 16 for TN.

Things changed after halftime. The Hatters went on a 23-9 run, influenced by Naylor, Velkey and GB vet Steph Gandy as Northumbria found their defence tough to break down.

The influential Naylor was able to sit for a long spell in the fourth, such was the Hatters dominance. Northumbria weren’t particularly bad but still looked to be suffering from the effects of their injury-ravaged spell. Ovner fouled out for TN with three minutes remaining, having put up seventeen points wearing a knee brace that made me envious (see the blog title!!!) . Their second half had amounted to only eighteen points as the Hatters moved back above them in the table with a final score of 100-66.

The imperious Naylor scored 24 for the Hatters in a display that showed her at her best. Every time I see her play, I am at a loss as to how to define her position. She is genuinely involved and influential all over the court and having suffered injury problems last season, looks to be back at her very best.

I rounded off the weekend by watching the coverage of the WBBL Cup Final, Nottingham Wildcats (well played Ashley Harris by the way – another of my favourite players) beating Caledonia Pride and the BBL Cup Final, Cheshire Phoenix taking the win over Worcester Wolves. All this after being on reporting duties for the Sharks on Friday night!

So people of Chesterfield, think yourselves lucky! Nobody covers hoops in the area like Spire Radio! And if you’ve ever got a spare £2 burning a hole in your pocket, get yourself down to WBBL game – you won’t regret it!

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The Dunk that went delirious!

dirkdunk2-minI’m reproducing a piece I wrote for last week’s programme about Dirk Williams’ dunk against Surrey Scorchers. It has to be the best individual play I have ever seen in a Sharks game and if you aren’t one of the one million people who viewed it online, then go search for it and gaze in awe! I called him Dirk ‘The Dunk’ Williams in subsequent reports and it seems to have stuck. Great player – go check him out at a Sharks game this season – well worth the admission price! Photo credit to Andy Chubb, who caught it frame by frame and produces some brilliant images for the Sharks.

It was one of those ‘I was there’ moments. And if you weren’t? Well surely by now you must have seen the video of one of the most outstanding plays in the history of Sharks basketball. Dirk Williams’ coast to coast drive, followed by the most ferocious one-handed slam over the shell-shocked Tony Hicks of Surrey Scorchers caused a worldwide stir a couple of weeks ago. The dunk capped a 99-94 overtime win for the Sharks in the most emphatic way possible. Here’s how it unfolded…

Mackey McKnight’s fadeaway score followed by Chris Alexander’s long two had just put the Sharks up by 93-89 with 49 seconds left in overtime – potentially a lifetime in basketball. What followed sealed Surrey’s fate and gave the Sharks a much needed win. Tony Wroblicky received an inbound and returned the ball to Williams close to his own basket. Williams ghosted past Steel and Ogedengbe and saw the court open up before him. Just after the free throw line, Williams began his ascent. Planted in the no-charge zone was the unfortunate Hicks, who saw the airborne Williams soar above him and slam the ball home one handed. Hicks ended prostrate on the floor with Williams revelling in the moment above him, soon to be joined by an impish Chris Alexander, just to add insult to injury.

Despite a Tayo Ogedengbe trey in the dying embers, the dunk capped a memorable win and enthused a crowd that had foregone the ‘delights’ of a 0-0 Sheffield football derby in favour of a local side bringing home the bacon so to speak!

What unfolded shortly after the game was almost equally remarkable. To prove that all is fair in love and basketball, Surrey media mogul Ryan Morgan generously sent a clipped copy to Philip Brown of the Sharks social media team and within hours, the video was attracting great interest on Facebook and Twitter. The Sharks Facebook (www.facebook.com/SheffieldSharks/) alone saw 7500 views with 170 likes and 143 shares with Twitter (@SheffieldSharks) coming in with 11,800 views.

Then came ESPN SportsCenter! The US based sports media giant put the dunk in its Top 10 to the tune of a further 476,000 views! (Favourite quote from their Facebook page, ‘He took off from yesterday, pushed through today and landed next week. Boom!’). The shares alone from ESPN registered 1,300 and sent the video into the stratosphere! In the region of one million views have now been estimated. Astonishing!

In his rookie year fresh from Birmingham, Alabama where he starred for the University of Alabama at Birmingham in Conference USA, how did the modestly-spoken Williams (Twitter – @Dirkwilliams11) react to all the attention?

‘It was exciting – By the time I got to half-court, I saw things open up and the opportunity for a slam. It was one of the best dunks I’ve done in my career and I didn’t expect to go worldwide.’

A somewhat reserved view that was acutely contrasted with the commentary of Sharks’ duo John Timms and Yuri Matischen…

‘There’s Wroblicky. And they need to get over the court quickly. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Wow! My goodness me! What a play that was!’

Not quite, ‘they think it’s all over’ but it will do!

And for an alternative view of the play, it would be remiss not mention the superb photography of Andy Chubb, who captured the event from the opposite side of the court (and can be seen in the purple t-shirt snapping away in the video). We have reproduced Andy’s photos of the dunk for you tonight as a lasting view of a breath-taking moment.

It was just one play. But oh what a play! The grace of the glide down court. The sense that an opportunity was opening up. The gulp of amazement at the agility of the leap. The ferocity of the dunk. The brutality of the opponent stupefied. The sense of superiority at the end of it all.

A moment never to forget! And if you were there to witness it, did you punch the air as I did? A great night to add to many in the history of Sharks basketball. Thanks Dirk! We salute you!

 

Iain McKinney – Record Breaker!

McKinney_IainHere’s another of those historical pieces I wrote. I again trawled the archives of the Sheffield Star for the information. It struck me as a fun article of how a Sheffield lad outshone the multi-millions of the NBA! Iain still does commentary occasionally from the EIS and is a great coach for the Junior Sharks. He also made the Sharks all-time greatest starting five when we conducted a poll in conjunction with http://www.ukamericansportsfans.com back in 2013.

One of the more unusual feats in the history of Sheffield Sharks basketball but nevertheless a highly noteable one. Move aside Roy Castle, sharpen your pencil Norris McWhirter, Iain McKinney has claimed his place in the Guinness Book of Records!

 April 1996 was the date and Ponds Forge Sports Centre was the venue as event sponsors Sony UK were promoting their new NBA computer game. And the aim? The Longest Scoring Basketball Shot, current record holder none other than Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson!

McKinney, who made a name for himself as an excellent three-point shooter, claimed the British record on an earlier stop on the Sony tour by hitting the target from 86 feet to beat Anthony Hylton’s 77 feet at Hemel Hempstead.

And to prove it was no fluke, possibly spurred on by home court advantage, McKinney felt the string go swoosh from 90 feet eight and half inches, about the length of seven family cars laid end to end. The Sheffield Star of the day described McKinney’s effort as a ‘throw which combined dazzling distance with Exocet missile accuracy.’

McKinney’s shot beat the record set by Johnson by six inches, something that the then 23 year old Sheffielder hoped would get back across the pond to the legendary Magic-man. A spokesman for the Los Angeles Lakers, Matthew Fleer, later disputed Magic’s previous hold on the record but there was absolutely no doubt about McKinney’s place in the famous book of records.  

Guinness’ previous best was set by Christopher Eddy, a high school player from Pennsylvania, in 1989. But the story of how the guy from smalltown Sheffield beat one of the all-time NBA greats makes for a much better read and further cements his place in Sheffield Sharks and British Basketball history.

 

Catching up with Marcus Stout

Stout2

Marcus is another guy from around the time I seriously got into basketball. Extremely talented and seemed to come up clutch a lot for the Sharks that season – at least that’s my memory of him anyway! I love this photo too because there’s a youthful Kieron Achara (current GB skipper and Glasgow Rock) in there! Marcus was an absolute gent and it was great to hear how well his coaching was going and that he had been inducted into the Fordham Hall of Fame – richly deserved!

Season 2010-11 was a pretty enjoyable affair for all followers of the Sharks. A third place finish in the league, a 93-66 whupping of the Mersey Tigers in the BBL Cup and a runners-up berth in the Playoffs to the same star-studded Mersey team. A key component of that side was 6’ 4” guard Marcus Stout, who kindly took the time out to speak to us about that impressive season and what he has been up to since.

‘Every time I think about that season, I think about how much talent we had on our team,’ began Marcus. ‘The chemistry we had on and off the court was rare for a team that just gets put together for one year without having ever played together. Winning the Cup was the highlight of the season. The atmosphere at that game was amazing and the way we came together as a team on such a big stage was great to be a part of. Although we came up short in the Championship game, that was one of the most fun seasons I have ever experienced as a player.’

Michigan-born Marcus settled into South Yorkshire life with ease as he went on to explain. ‘I have great memories of living in Sheffield. The city had an old school feel to it with all of the steel plants which reminded me of my hometown in Detroit. The best part of everything was how welcoming the people were. Everywhere I went from the gym to the movies or restaurants, everyone was very nice.’

Sadly, that season was to be Marcus’ last on the pro circuit but through adversity, he was able to forge a new career in the game. ‘I didn’t continue my professional career after the Sharks due to two reasons. First, I was having trouble with my knee at the end of the season. After being back in the States and still having problems, I went to the doctor and was told I needed surgery. A minor procedure turned into 2 surgeries within one year in 2012. In between those surgeries, I was presented with an opportunity to begin training basketball players. When I was healthy again, I continued training but my heart was set on getting back to playing professionally. I was conflicted but the training company that I started with my partner was going so well and I had such a passion for it that I decided to continue training and helping players reach their dreams. That passion became more fulfilling for me than playing professionally again so I put all of my energy into my training business and never pursued playing again,’ he explained.

And as a trainer, Marcus has found great success, now working with some of the elite of the U.S. game. ‘As tough as it was to go through those surgeries, God brought me out on the other side in an even better place. I always say that being blessed with a passion and talent for training basketball players is the biggest blessing that I have received in my life. The love of helping players on all levels on and off the court has been nothing short of amazing. I have been able to start a business, travel the world to conduct clinics, positively affect the lives of other players and also work with many professionals and the future of the NBA. This year, the company who I currently work with, Pro Hoops, conducted the NBA Pre Draft training for 6 first round draft picks including Brandon Ingram, Jamal Murray and Thon Maker who all went in the top 10.’

As an alumnus of Fordham University, Marcus recently had the great honour of being elected to their Hall of Fame, alongside luminaries such as American Football legend Vince Lombardi. ‘Being inducted into the Fordham Hall of Fame was a major blessing. It’s not something that I ever expected to happen. Being able to have all of my friends and family come together for that moment was awesome. The best part was seeing how proud my parents were and them knowing that the work they put in with me has paid off not only in athletics, but most importantly with the person that I have become.’

Marcus still remembers his time in the Steel City with great affection and speaks highly of his former team-mates. ‘I am still in touch with a few of my teammates such as Paul Williams, Mike Tuck, Steve Dags (Dagostino), Ryan Patton, Rich McNutt, and Ash Chandley. We have a bond that can never be broken which shows in how we still talk and communicate with each other.’

And as we continue our mission to spread the word of football (ok then soccer!) to our friends from North America, we inevitably had to ask Marcus who he would choose? United or Wednesday? ‘Great question! Living in Sheffield really got me into watching soccer. I only attended a Wednesday game while I was there, so I’m going to have to go with Wednesday.’

A genuine, committed guy now making a great success of training the NBA stars of the future, we retain great memories of Marcus and the side of ’10-’11 and it seems the feeling is mutual. ‘I wish everyone in Sheffield nothing but the best and continued success!’ We extend the same wishes back to Detroit!

 

Catching up with David Aliu

aliu1I wrote this one about a year ago. David kindly answered a few questions upon the occasion of the Sharks playing his former team, Cheshire Phoenix shortly after his retirement from the game. I remember David standing out in a stacked Mersey Tigers team, which took some doing because that team was seriously loaded! I’d heard whispers he was close to signing for the Sharks on a couple of occasions but sadly it never came to be, although it was nice to hear he has South Yorkshire connections anyway!

The start of the 2016-17 BBL season was marked by the retirement of two giants of the game. Of course, the North East said farewell to the ‘Prince’ Charles Smith but basketball in the North West became all the more poorer for the retirement of Liverpool born David Aliu. The thirty five year old was a staple of many great BBL teams but cannot count the Sharks amongst the clubs he has suited up for. He finished his career in the jersey of tonight’s opponents, Cheshire Phoenix, but as we found out, there is definitely a Sheffield connection in the life of one of the greats of the British game.

I have to confess. One of the earliest Sharks games I attended, I saw this guy who shot the three extremely well. He commanded the boards, he organised the whole team. This was some player. Yes, you’ve guessed it…David Aliu. From then on, I followed his performances with whichever team he played for and if you are allowed such a thing, he became my favourite non-Shark baller.

But how is retirement from the game suiting David now?

‘Retirement is going well. It was something I was worried about for a long time as for the last 22 years Basketball has been all I have known. I miss the bond I used to have with team mates and friends on rival teams but I can honestly say as of right now I do not miss playing. I am enjoying being a fan more and checking the latest results.’

David had a stellar career, graduating from Moorhead State University and going on to play for the Scottish Rocks, in Iceland, Leicester Riders, in Spain and Switzerland as well as with Everton / Mersey Tigers, Manchester Giants and finally for Cheshire Phoenix. David was of course a part of the Mersey Tigers side that lost to the Sharks by 93-66 in the 2010-11 BBL Cup Final.

‘That BBL cup final was a tough one to swallow as all I can remember was as a team we did not play well and Mr Dagostino was shooting from damn near half court making shots! When you are not playing well as a team and a player on opposite team is that HOT it’s a tough challenge. But we learnt a lot from that game and as you know we never slipped up again.’

David was of course referring to the fact that the Tigers, with an illustrious line-up that included Drew Sullivan, Andrew Thompson, Nate Reinking and James Jones, went on to claim the BBL Trophy, League title and Playoffs.

But what about David’s Sheffield connection?

‘Yes I have some really good friends at the Sharks in Colin Sing, Mike Tuck and Olu [Babalola] to name a few. I have always loved Sheffield and was close few seasons ago signing there. I have always loved the fans and the set up in Sheffield and would have loved to be a part of the Sharks. I spend a lot of time in Sheffield as my better half is from there and all our family and friends live there so you will see me at a few home games for sure.’

So with a foot in both camps so to speak, how does David see the Sharks and the ‘Nix shaping up this season?

‘Sharks are solid and seem to be really coming together and gelling over last few games. It is always difficult early in season to judge a team but the Sharks are always one of the top teams come end of season. The Nix are struggling that’s no secret. They have made a few changes so hopefully they have the right pieces in place now to start to gel and make a run.’

David doesn’t rule out some involvement in basketball in the future and is fulsome in praise of the potential of British basketball.

‘Basketball is in me so naturally I would still like involvement on some level but it obviously has to be the right kind of involvement.’

‘I don’t get involved too much in the politics of Basketball in this country because that’s not my thing but the one thing I do know is that as a country we have some unbelievable talent and there is no reason why we should not be one of the best in Europe.’

Back to the present day, working life has taken a different turn for David.

‘So right now I have started my own Events company and Staffing agency called Sparky People with my partner. It is something new and fresh for me and it’s been a challenge for the last 12 months trying to adapt and understand it fully but I am thoroughly enjoying it and it’s given me great pleasure being involved in the events industry. We have Staff and events up and down the country for a wide range of clients.’

I still miss that familiar headband and those deft three pointers dropping through the hoop but it’s great to hear that life is treating my favourite non-Shark baller well. He may well be a few other people’s favourite too? At least we may still catch up with him around Sheffield in the near future! Many thanks again David!

Amaechi’s Monster Game

amaechiI’ve already said that I am a relative newcomer to basketball but on occasions, I’ve been called upon to write pieces based on historical games and events. John Amaechi is extremely forthright about the current state of the British game but undeniably is one of the greatest players ever produced by this isle. He spent a season with the Sharks and I had to dig into local newspaper archives to come up with this piece; the game in question being before my time sadly.

Outspoken? Controversial? A great player? The first two are open for debate but there can be little doubt about the third when referring to the talent displayed by John Amaechi throughout his stellar basketball career. Undoubtedly one of the greatest British basketball players of all time with a career that saw him travel between Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets in the NBA as well as high-profile stays in Europe at Cholet and Limoges in France, Panathinaikos in Greece and Bologna in Italy. The 1997-1998 season saw Sharks fans fortunate enough to witness Amaechi in the famous blue and yellow as by his own admission, he became very familiar with the Snake Pass travelling from his Manchester home.

97-98 also bore witness to an outstanding performance by Amaechi in the Uni-ball Trophy Final as the Sharks claimed a famous 82-79 win over London Towers. But how did the teams arrive at the NEC showpiece? Well, London gave themselves a healthy first leg semi-final advantage over Newcastle Eagles by 92-74 and could afford that British basketball anomaly, a tied game, by 89 a piece up in the North East to stake a 181-163 aggregate win. The Sharks won their home leg by 103-85 against the Greater London Leopards and were defeated by 90-82 in the capital but still progressed by 185-175 overall. Having cleaned up following Crufts the day previous, it was the Sharks and the Towers who took to the court in the NEC on March 8th in a rivalry that Sharks Coach Chris Finch called the ‘best in British basketball.’

According to the Sheffield Star of the time, ‘for 98 per cent of the game Sharks held the lead (at times up to 10 points) but London hung in there doggedly.’ The quarter scores went as follows; the Sharks initially led 19-14, 37-32 at half time and 58-55 at the end of the third. As the game ticked on, Danny Lewis gave the Towers a 78-79 lead with eleven seconds remaining. James Hamilton impeded Wil Johnson, who levelled the scores from the line. Nine seconds to go and the Sharks called a timeout with a sideline put in to follow. By this point, Amaechi’s part in the game had heralded a massive 40 point, 16 rebound double-double with the small matter of a perfect fourteen trips to the charity stripe. So would Amaechi be the man to take the big final play? The Towers clearly thought so but such was the talent at the Sharks disposal that Terrell Myers got the open look and drained a trademark long three to commence the celebrations.

Despite Myers game-winning intervention, Amaechi’s huge statline deservedly saw the MVP award come his way. As well as his forty point haul, Mark Robinson weighed in with 22 and Terrell Myers with 16. Amaechi was forthright as usual upon the conclusion of the game. ‘Numbers-wise it was my biggest game in a Sharks vest yet but the numbers sometimes fool you. It wasn’t Terrell with his big shot that won it, although that was huge, obviously. A lot of players played big at different intervals and allowed myself and Mark Robinson to have a little rest. I think Towers’ main focus was Mark early on in the game because he has 55 points against them in the last two games. I’m sure they were trying not to let him get off again and kill them again.’

The final word should perhaps go to Sharks Coaching legend Chris Finch as it neatly sums up the feelings at the time of having Amaechi’s skills on parade. ‘John Amaechi was outstanding, superb – that’s why we brought him here.’

Catching up with Steve Dagostino

dagostino3This was one of the guys that piqued my interest in basketball. Full of energy, full of invention and a great shooter to boot. It was no surprise to see him go on to good things on the continent and equally no surprise that he is one of the top trainers of players on the East Coast of the US now. Another gentleman of the hardwood, here was my wrap with Dags…

The DBL Sharks Sheffield have a history of players that produce memorable cup final performances. Hopefully many of you will remember the terrific campaign of 2010-11 when a certain shaggy-haired Italian-American called Steve Dagostino lit up the court in Birmingham to blow away a stacked Mersey Tigers team by 93-66. Of course, Steve excited the EIS faithful all season long as well as enjoying a productive career in many of Europe’s top leagues. We caught up with him to see what he is up to now.

Steve gave his recollections of his time in South Yorkshire. ‘I have great memories from Sheffield.  I was at a point in my career where I needed to go to a winning club and perform well so I was very motivated.  Atiba [Lyons] and Sarah [Backovic] put me in a great situation to succeed and the guys on my team were some of the best I played with in my 6 years.  Great on and off the Court. ‘

That clearly bore out in his performances as Dagostino went on to average 17.26 points per game in the BBL Championship, 19.25 in the Trophy and 16 in the Cup as well as dishing out 3.7 assists and shooting 47% from inside and 40% from beyond the arc. More on that later!

As mentioned earlier, Steve went on to play in some of the top leagues in Europe as he went on to explain. ‘The toughest Leagues I played in were Spain Leb Gold and Italy Lega Due.  They were the second leagues in both countries but it was very high pressure, guys were getting paid a lot of money, and the competition was tough!’

And in 2012, Steve brought a relatively early end to his career as a pro for reasons he would go on to divulge. ‘ In 2012 I retired…. I was signed to play in France for Quimper… A team that was teetering between PRO B and NM1.  The previous season I finished out the season in Spain with a bulging disk in my back and Plantar Fasciitis in BOTH MY FEET!  It literally took me an hour to be ready for practice and an hour to ice down after each day.  I figured that my body was telling me that it was time to move on!’

We couldn’t speak to Steve without mentioning that historic ‘Dagostino Final’ against Mersey where he shot an astonishing 8 out of 10 from deep on his way to 35 points and the MVP award. ‘That Final was definitely the high point of my professional career. First and foremost because we played so well as a team and secured the cup for Sheffield.  Secondly, it was one of those nights where everything was going in for me and to do it on such a big stage was a blessing!’

The Sharks also seem to have a history of producing players that then go on to have highly productive careers as Coaches and trainers. Steve it appears is no exception and is now one of the most successful on the East Coast of the US. ‘ I now own a basketball training company based in New York.  I run basketball camps and clinics, as well as train players and teams.  I have established myself on the East Coast of the United States having trained players and teams in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Florida. I currently train players that are going to attend University of Maryland, University of North Carolina, and others who have received Scholarship offers from Villanova, Syracuse, Michigan, and many more. ‘ Quite a CV!

For a busy guy, does Steve still keep in touch with anyone from his Sheffield days? ‘ I am still in touch with a couple people from Sheffield.  I speak with Sarah once or twice a year via Facebook, and try to catch up with Mike Tuck as well.  Sarah was great during my time in Sheffield and is a great person.  Tuck…. who doesn’t love Tuck?!!  My goal really, is to get back to Sheffield (England as a whole) and run an Elite Clinic for Youth players.  I have been in touch a bit with Sarah about this and hope that eventually we can make it happen.  I am close to setting one up with my former club in Iceland and would love to do the same in Sheffield.  My wife, Colleen, who was with me for 3 months in Sheffield has been bugging me to get back over there!!’ So it may well be that we haven’t seen the last of the affable Dagostino just yet!

It was a pleasure to connect with one of the most exciting players of the Sharks recent history and Steve would love to hear from any fans or former teammates. Go follow him on Facebook: Dags Basketball, Twitter: @dagsbasketball or Instagram: @dags_basketball. And by the way, Steve supports the Wednesday!