Hoop Dreams

Earlier this month Basketball England and TASS teamed up to publish their findings on athlete migration – focusing on the movement of English players to the USA. As the report continues to spark debate we canvassed opinion from two different standpoints.

This Friday Clay Wright and his father Chris leave behind their family home in Worthing, West Sussex, to embark on the start of a journey that’s familiar to many emerging English basketball players seeking to realise their dual career dreams on the other side of the Pond.

Clay is a 6ft 8in 16-year-old with the world at his feet. Next week he relocates to Minnesota ahead of a two-year stint at high school. Armed with a conditional offer from a Division One college, a successful career beckons for hot prospect Clay.

And father Chris, a former British Basketball League (BBL) professional, believes it’s by far the best option for a dual national player yet to make his mark for England’s juniors and with a desire to excel on and off the court.

“It’s a life changing decision for Clay and for all of the family,” said Chris. “We’re leaving behind my wife and daughter, Clay’s mother and sister, and starting a new life in Minnesota.

“I have family and friends in the area and Clay’s played over there in the past so it’s not a completely new situation.

“But the difference is that this time we’re not just visiting. We’re there for good. Or at least for the next two years. It’s not a decision we’ve taken lightly but as a family we know it’s the right decision for Clay now and in the future.”

Although Clay is in the minority when it comes to English players heading to high school in the US, there’s no shortage of homegrown players heading Stateside to take up lucrative college scholarships and to play for leading NCAA schools.

It’s a well-trodden path for the country’s most talented teenagers and, according to this month’s report on athlete migration, published by Basketball England and TASS, it’s ‘considered to be the norm’ if a player hopes to pursue a career in hoops.

In 2019, a total of 1,941 athletes migrated from the UK to NCAA Division 1 or 2 colleges. Of these athletes, 97 were basketball players and the UK ranks second behind Canada for the number of athletes sent to the NCAA system.

The BE/TASS report examines in detail the perceptions, experiences and motivations that affect migration to the US and seeks to form the basis for better player development, representation and welfare in the future.

Abby Lowe, who is enjoying a renaissance as a player with Newcastle Eagles WBBL this season, almost quit the sport she loves following a basketball experience to forget in San Diego.

And yet the Northumbria University Masters student took as many positives as she did negatives from her three-year stint in California.

“Looking back, I wish I’d had better advice – or known who to turn to for that advice – both before and during my time as a basketball scholarship student in the US,” she said.

“I was encouraged to go to college in America following a couple of years with Barking Abbey and it seemed like an exciting option.

“I knew that if I could win a full scholarship then I’d be well looked after and come away with a good degree. The academic side was always a big motivation for me.

“I decided I wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny so I flew to California and had a look around San Diego State University.

“I was welcomed with open arms and on the face of it everyone seemed so lovely. On and off the court it looked like everything I’d dreamed of.

“I flew home and committed to San Diego State a week later.”

In retrospect Abby accepts she should have taken a more considerate approach to her college future.

Two years later the Stockport-born player had barely featured for the Division One Aztecs and her basketball dream had turned sour.

But it wasn’t all bad news.

“On court it was a huge culture shock and I wasn’t prepared for the physical challenge,” she added. “But I knuckled down and worked hard.

“Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for a demanding coach who offered me little support and failed to come up with any answers when I asked where I was going wrong.

“When I did get the odd minute on court I was so lacking in confidence that I’d virtually forgotten how to play basketball.

“In the end I gave up on basketball and graduated a year early. And that’s the thing. I loved San Diego and I loved the academic side of things.

“I came away with a degree in business administration and finance and that had been my primary motivation. That was the positive part of the experience.

“I just wish I’d been able to find out more about the basketball programme and ask the right questions to the right people.

“If the BE/TASS report can go some way to helping people like me in that situation then it can make a real difference.”

Asking the right questions won’t be a problem for Chris and Clay. The Wrights have undertaken exhaustive research during the last two years — considering academic requirements and aspirations alongside the quality of basketball provision at various high schools and colleges.

But Chris accepts the majority of English players planning a life-changing move abroad won’t necessarily have the same insight or support.

“We’re going over there with our eyes wide open and, as I said, it’s already a familiar environment for Clay,” he added.

“I’m convinced that if young players approach this opportunity in the right way then it can be the chance of a lifetime.

“I don’t think basketball as a career would even be on Clay’s radar if it wasn’t for the fact that he has this opportunity to go to the States.

“If he stayed home I just don’t see the same opportunities to get his name out there basketball-wise and come away from a leading college with a good degree.”

Chris could have done the same. In the early 1990s he accepted a scholarship from the University of New Haven in Connecticut after initially being recruited by Division One school Manhattan College.

“When it came down to it, New Haven decided I needed some more academic credits before I could start college and one option was to return to the UK,” he explained.

“My mother was here so I decided to head back home for the summer, take a couple of GCSEs and then take up my scholarship.

“But I was offered a professional contract by Worthing Bears a few weeks later. One thing led to another and I never ended up going to college in the States.

“I ended up playing in the BBL for more than 10 years.

“I don’t regret the experiences I had playing basketball in the UK but I do regret not returning to America.

“I would have got a good degree and I would have had more opportunities and bargaining power as a professional.

“Twenty years down the line and I think that’s still the case. Perhaps even more so.

“If the BE/TASS report helps to better prepare English players for the challenges ahead then that’s progress. I’d say the NCAA pathway is still the best route available for young guys looking to further their careers on and off the court.”

Abby’s dual career journey has come full circle and her San Diego experience is firmly in the past. A starting five player with the resurgent Eagles and a Masters student at Northumbria University, the French-raised player continues to go from strength to strength.

“This is what I imagined my US college experience would be like,” she added. “I’m surrounded by supporting coaching staff and team-mates on the court and loving my postgraduate studies.

“I just wish I’d known that there was an opportunity to transfer after my freshman year in San Diego and that there was a chance to experience college basketball somewhere else.

“I would have been happy to move to a school at a lower level just to reconnect with the sport I love but I simply didn’t realise that was an option until it was too late.

“Ensuring that would-be college recruits have access to all of the relevant information is hugely important.”

For more information on the study undertaken by Basketball England and TASS and to read the full report click here [https://www.basketballengland.co.uk/news/talent-be-and-tass-team-up-for-landmark-report-on-player-migration-to-the-us/]

Listing image – Abby Lowe in action for the Newcastle Eagles.