Part One: What’s your one true goal? A Basketball Question.

You do how many hours? –  For free?

You missed what? –  And you don’t get paid?

You drove all the way where?  – In a minibus?

Their incredulity rises along with their tone and need I mention the morphing of their faces into utter disbelief. They don’t get it right?!

Having heard these questions all too frequently, my reactions towards them have evolved each time they have been asked.  In the beginning, by beginning I’m talking about running around a dingy leisure centre in my mum’s spare kit and a pair of canvas Converse (trendy at the time – I swear),  these questions simply caused confusion in my little mind. “Well this is what my family does isn’t it? It’s normal to miss all these events and spend every waking hour on a bus, on a bench, on a basketball court.”

That was before I had invested so much of MY time. Now it’s MY time, MY hours and with that came a more resentful attitude towards these ‘ridiculous’ comments. Frustration, as these condescending, ignorant queries undermined the time and effort I gave to this wonderful game. As if this was just a hobby, a fun little pastime that I’d picked up along the way. Just a game, just dribbling a ball around; not many people play anyway do they?

Years down the line, the frustration is diluted by the sheer number of instances on which I’ve encountered such comments. Having been met with, “Can’t you just miss it this week?” countless times on my journey with the this beautiful game, I’ve grown to sometimes ignore and often tolerate this misunderstanding of my passion. Water off a duck’s back I believe is the term – This is the most liberating angle I’ve matured into and it is one of sheer gratefulness. Because you know what, having such a strong passion for something that it would seem an unhealthy obsession to ‘the outside’ world, adds a dimension to my life that ‘they’ couldn’t possibly understand. But they’re not in ‘our world right?’

– My name is Siobhán Prior, and I’m a basketballaholic.

If you are also a member of ‘Basketballers Anonymous England’, then you’ve been lucky enough to be on the end of these comments too. It feels good to be in this club doesn’t it? To be in this together.

And this is where my critical analysis of ‘us’, as a group of addicts of this amazing game begins. Please notice that I say ‘us’. Throughout this piece, understand that it is not my intention to point fingers. It is my goal to lead ‘us’ down a path of self-reflection in order to better meet this new opportunity head on, with complete clarity and hopefully willing co-operation.

So with that, here comes the main topic of my writing – the main plea.

“Let’s get along.”

An age old request. “A naive one”, I imagine lots of you are muttering at the computer screen. “Come on Shev, you’ve been around long enough to know that this is a problem that can’t be solved.”  – Why not? It’s in our control. Our recovery is in our own hands.

If you’re wondering what the problem is I’m referring to then you are already blessed. The problem I refer to, fellow basketball junkies, buries itself in misplaced passion. A detour down a twisting road of an addict’s seemingly inevitable selfish devotion, that leads us to a place where our true and once clear goals become blurred and sometimes completely obscured. Being involved in this sport in our country, we often find ourselves in survival mode. This personal situation of survival is the trigger that sends us down this path of self devotion. It is when our addiction rears its ugly, reptilian head as the desperate need to preserve one’s programme over our once so clear need to preserve one’s players.

One’s programme: The local structures of basketball we build in order to serve the purpose of our one true aim.

One’s players: Our one true aim.

In this sense then, my addiction, because I include myself in all conversation, can present itself in the bottle green of the NW on my chest. Nottingham Wildcats – one’s programme.

The programme was built in order to service the young females and later players of Nottingham – one’s players.

Our club, like so many of yours, is deliberately located in an inner city area of Nottingham. So here begins the representation of the true goals we all had before that cloud of ‘survival’ descended. What we all have in common is the craving to provide young people with a platform to succeed, not just in basketball but in life. I know this is true from the many conversations I have had around our sport’s community. We want to help. We want to better the chances of the next generation, particularly the generation of kids who lack the confidence to dream big because it just isn’t expected of them. For those, whom when they dare to dream, are shot down by a stern and sour tasting dose of ‘reality’. But we know that there is an alternative reality for these young people and we all believe that sport is a fantastic medium through which to achieve this reality. We believe it because it was true for us. It works. It’s proven.

The passion of the basketball community in England towards this goal and the subsequent goal of the betterment of the game in our nation, is apparent in the dedication of so many of us who volunteer endless hours in our beloved programmes. The programmes, set up locally, by us, are a necessary structure in order to enable our young people and young players to succeed. But the structure is fragmented – insufficient – and all too often, unsustainable.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case – why our structures are failing to attain the potential our sport has in this country. They are the reasons we spend hours of our days discussing:

  • Funding
  • Participation
  • Coaching
  • Competition
  • Exposure

The list could go on and sometimes seems insurmountable. Before I begin my follow up point it is important for me to stress that I am in agreement with the desperate need for quality in each area listed.

But this list above. We need to be ready to receive it.

Basketball in our local structures needs to thrive with the cooperation of each programme within it. We need to tame the reptilian side of our brain. The side that tells us that protecting our territory is key. That the survival of our individual programme is key.

It isn’t!  

What is key, is that we have transparency between programmes. We don’t fear the other but look to it for advice and constructive competition that protects and enhances our young people and players. Creating symbiotic relationships within our area that can harmoniously work together to achieve our one true goal. Because that one true goal is there, timidly cowering behind the rigid frame of our sometimes reptilian mindsets. We can support each other to breath life and confidence into our aim to put the player first. Put the person first. What do they need to improve, to move forward? How can we support the journey and the growth of the player and in doing so the journey and the growth of the game in this country? That way we all grow. Not only do we survive but we thrive together and create something special in the process.
You see it starts with us, it always has. The British Development Model roadshow has shown us that we are being listened to and valued. The structures and their sustainability at a local level need to be and will be addressed because that is where the pathway begins. Having the courage and foresight to start from the ground up is the first step. What we have to do now is accept our role within the bigger structure, find our value within the system and work together within it for the betterment of our players and the game.

Part 2 of this piece will explicitly discuss a local structure I believe would work for us as a country and will be released on Saturday 11th March at 9am. Hope you look forward to reading my ideas for  solutions.

A call to Equality: Bigger than Basketball

What is it that you love about sport?

Is it the speed, the agility, the strength, the dedication? Or maybe it’s the excitement, the unknown, the ebbs and flows, the final outcome? Perhaps it’s the admiration you have for your favourite tennis player, the feeling of acceptance and community you find in supporting a team or that same feeling you get playing on a team?

Whatever the reason you have for the love of sport, it is a reason that connects you to many like-minded and passionate people in the world.

Each day TVs are turned on and sport enters the homes of the world’s population. Who is this population? Well, there’s the leisurely viewers, the fair-weather fans, the glory hunters, the die hards . . .

Likewise, each day sports venues are full to the brim with people participating in sport. Who are these people? Well, they follow much the same pattern as the sports viewers. From the leisurely participant to the semi-professional athlete to the full-time professional sports person . . .

No matter where you identify within this list, one thing that connects us all is the passion and enjoyment we all have within our chosen sports. Hands up if you’ve shed a quiet little tear, in the safety of your own living room of course – after all, how unBritish of us to show that little tear in public – after witnessing a winning backhand down the line for the underdog player with the odds stacked against her or a corner three buzzer beater that produces the fairy tale ending for the Cinderella team?! It’s a dream, it’s a tale from a storybook, it’s a Hollywood blockbuster. And the beautiful thing is, it is all of these things because in actual fact behind all of these facades it really is real life.

‘Glory Road’, an American sports film, released in 2006, tells the real life story of the struggle of the African American basketball player trying to break into NCAA college basketball. ‘Remember the Titans’ is another American sports film, released in 2000, which depicts the same real life struggle in relation to American Football.

What do these two and so many other similar movies have in common?

Well for one, all the things I love about a good sports movie – a struggle for equality; a coming of age of people, young and old, whose eyes are opened to the beauty of diversity; the purity in the fight of people from different walks of life uniting to break down long standing barriers, using sport as their vehicle.

But whilst these movies are emotive representations of the success sport has had in uniting and overcoming, we mustn’t let them lull us into a false sense of security. The successes they depict are only a tiny droplet in an enormous ocean of inequalities that so many people face in their lives, day in, day out. To quote President Obama in his farewell speech, “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society . . .we’re not where we need to be and all of us have more work to do.”

Just tonight, I was reminded of further inequalities that are “a very potent and divisive force in our society” today. The events and decisions of the past year that have and will continue to shape our world have highlighted to me just how much “more work” we all have to do with regards to these “divisive forces”.

Whilst I was sat in my club’s basketball arena, strategically located in an inner city area of Nottingham, I was joined by one of the club’s trustees – a Muslim man with whom I share a lot of similar beliefs and passions. We began talking about an exciting proposition I had been offered earlier in the day – a chance to be part of a documentary that challenges negative views towards cultural diversity in Britain. As we were talking, putting the world to rights – as often happens on the bleachers at the Wildcats’ Arena – I was once again reminded of how privileged I have been to be surrounded by a wealth of cultures, languages, religions and races my whole life – one of the reasons for my love of sport.

However, I was also reminded that so many other people in the world have not been as lucky to grow up in such a rich environment. Whilst this does not always affect people in a negative way, I believe it can often narrow a person’s field of understanding and perception. Recently, I have become increasingly worried that these chains of ignorance will shackle our future generations. For in the world right now, we seem to be building barriers, limiting opportunities for cultural diversity and stunting the growth of tolerance, inclusivity and understanding. For me, the most worrying thing is that we are not open minded enough to always consider all parties in decisions we make, actions we take and in the things we say. This quiet ignorance and often complete obliviousness can lead to our inability to think and act inclusively and in my opinion is an issue that needs addressing on a worldwide scale. We must seek opportunities to educate and enlighten. We must find ways of challenging ignorance in a productive and progressive way. Sometimes this task can seem overwhelming and in today’s climate, I can struggle to see how society is holding on to those important values I grew up with. But as often happens, when you are feeling overwhelmed, the world presents you with a chink of light, an opportunity. This time, my chink of light was presented to me by my Muslim friend.

He told me a story he had heard in the news about a female Muslim basketball player in America by the name of Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. If you haven’t heard her story yet, Bilqis is a very talented basketball player trying to play her sport at the professional level in Europe. The reason I say ‘trying to’ is because she hasn’t yet achieved her dream.

Bilqis is the all-time leading scorer in Massachusetts’ history for High School Basketball (male or female). She earned a full athletic scholarship to NCAA Division 1 University of Memphis, where she stayed for 4 years, before transferring to Indiana State to complete her final year of eligibility. Whilst there, she led her team to a conference title. This is only a snapshot of Bilqis’ achievements but it must have you wondering why she is merely ‘trying’ to sign a contract with a European team and not signed one and began playing in a new club somewhere.

But there is one statistic I left out.

In 2010, she also became the first NCAA Division 1 basketball player to play while wearing a hijab.

And therein lies the reason Bilqis continues to ‘try’ to play overseas. The governing body for basketball in Europe, FIBA, have a rule that outlaws wearing a hijab during a basketball game. Their argument is based on ‘religious neutrality’ and ‘safety’. So here it is again. The stunted ideals of regressive societal values and plain ignorance rear its ugly head.

Article 4.4.2 (the article that contains the ban on ‘headwear’) does not allow for players to wear a headband that is bigger than 5cm in width, which inadvertently rules out the hijab. What I am not saying is that FIBA has deliberately written a rule in order to discriminate against groups of players who follow particular religions because of what they wear. However, I do believe it is a major oversight to have written a rule that is not inclusive of all players, especially without the suggestion of any alternative headwear that would be acceptable to both FIBA and the players this rule inhibits. It goes back to my earlier worries about thinking and acting without the foresight to be inclusive.

This rule is not only not inclusive of the hijab but also of turbans and yarmulkes. Therefore it also narrows male participation as well as female. Although I am of course sympathetic to the male demographic that has been excluded by article 4.4.2, as a woman in sport myself I am greatly concerned that female participation is affected by this ruling. As females in sport, we always have and continue to struggle for equality and a ruling that makes it only more difficult for a group of women to play my sport is hugely disappointing to me.

More importantly, the misunderstood opinions of too many towards Islam and its traditions mean that the religion has suffered enough. As a society we must take actions to educate and enlighten these misunderstandings but also when an opportunity is handed to us to support and show solidarity and positivity towards Islam, it should be taken.

Here is a strong and successful Muslim woman being put in a position to choose between two of the most important things in her life – religion and basketball. In the documentary she produced to enlighten people with her story, she expressed a desire to not conform. Bilqis gave a lot of thought to her decision to continue wearing her hijab as part of her faith and in doing so sacrificed her opportunities to play professionally. The personal characteristics that guided her to make this final decision reflects the qualities in any human being that should be held up as an example to be respected and admired – dedication, resilience, integrity, equality. Such a role model in society shouldn’t be fighting for equality in this world. Equality should be given, not earned. It is a fundamental human right. We need to be better. As a sport, we need to be better. As a society, we need to be better.

Basketball has been presented with a special opportunity in our current climate of misguided fear and gross misunderstanding. Without auditioning, it has been offered a role in one of those American sports movies that really is real life. If FIBA Europe decides to overrule or rewrite article 4.4.2 it is using its power for the good. It is using its power to break down more barriers, to level another playing field, to send a message to the world that what is really important is equality for all and what is really is beautiful is diversity in all its forms. Give Bilqis her opportunity to play professionally and in doing so enable other Muslim women to be empowered and inspired.

Show us why we love sport by showing us the unique power it can have!