Huw Hopkins takes a look at how the BBL and NBA have crossed over the years
There may be an ocean between them but the British Basketball League (BBL) and the NBA have crossed paths on more occasions than you’d think during the 33-year history of the UK’s top tier of competition
One of the most high profile appearances by an NBA player in the BBL is the five-time champion, two-time defensive player of the year and the Hall Of Fame forward Dennis Rodman. After winning titles with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons in the 1980s and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, he joined the Brighton Bears, coached by Nick Nurse, in 2006.
Rodman was coming off the back of an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother, and his three-game stint with the Bears was something that point guard Danny Hildreth will never forget, who said: “He obviously didn’t score that much, but he didn’t need to. He was a team player, even in this scenario.”
Having Rodman play was a special moment in BBL history, as Hildreth said: “We had a new kit for when he played. I walked into the changing room early and there was my jersey, and sat next to it was one that said ‘Rodman’. That was a pinch-yourself moment.”
Nurse eventually made the move to the NBA Development League (now called the G League) and worked his way up through the coaching ranks to become an NBA champion head coach with the Toronto Raptors in 2019. But Brighton wasn’t his only stop in the BBL.
A few years earlier, he led the Manchester Giants to BBL glory, assembling a squad of home-grown and international talent to win the league title in the 1999-2000 season. One American on that roster was American Phil Handy, and in Dan Routledge’s incredible stats catalogue, Handy scored 13 points per game that season.
Handy moved back to the United States at the end of the year, but he called his BBL experience “probably one of the most fun seasons I had playing professional basketball”. He then built a career as a skills development specialist and worked on several NBA sidelines, including Nurse’s Raptors staff last year, and the LA Lakers with Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James.
Speaking of the Lakers, if you go back to the 1989-90 NBA season, the name Steve Bucknall appears on the roster alongside players like James Worthy and Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson. Bucknall is British basketball legend who made several stops in the BBL, including at Thames Valley Tigers, Birmingham Bullets and Leicester Riders, and joined top flight European leagues throughout his lengthy career.
Another 1980s and 1990s BBL legend is Alton Byrd. Considered by some of the long-standing British basketball fans to be the greatest player in the league’s history, he played with Manchester United/Eagles in its inaugural season, and then with the Kingston/Guildford Kings. The American also gained dual nationality to appear in the Olympic qualifiers for Britain in the early 1990s. While he was technically drafted by the Boston Celtics, the 186th pick in 1979 never sniffed time in the NBA, but in more recent history, he has spent time in the offices of the Sacramento Kings and the Brooklyn Nets, as well as the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.
A popular NBA franchise in the UK, owing to its tourism, is the Orlando Magic. One former player of multiple to have laced up his sneakers in the BBL is Nigerian Olumide Oyedeji, who played for the Florida franchise at the start of his career, after being drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics. During his final seasons as a professional, Oyedeji joined the London Lions and posted 7 points per game over two seasons.
The Lions franchise has a long history under different names in and out of the BBL, and during its time as the Hemel Royals in the 1980s, Steve Hale and Leroy Smith joined the side. They moved to the UK after playing at the University of North Carolina and Laney High School, respectively, where they were teammates of a certain player named Michael Jordan.
More recently, the Lions have continued to reach out to people with close ties to the NBA. Lonzo Ball of the New Orleans Pelicans might not have been able to join his father and brothers when the Ball family played an exhibition game in London with their JBA USA team, but the younger siblings put on a show. LiAngelo is now working out with NBA G League teams and LaMelo is expected to be a top draft pick this year.
You only have to look at one of the most recent people to join the NBA ranks to see how the BBL can shape you as a player and a coach. Fab Flournoy won titles with the Birmingham Bullets and the Sheffield Sharks, but most notably he helped turn the Newcastle Eagles into a dynasty during his 18 years with the club.
While talking to Sheffield Sharks head coach Atiba Lyons on the BBL’s Coaches Chat, Flournoy said: “One thing about the BBL is that it’s a battle. You’re playing two or three games a week, and you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. We might have lost the League or the Playoffs, but we didn’t have time for a pity party because we had to play in the Cup.”
Now with the Toronto Raptors, the team is doing well under his and Nurse’s leadership showing the crossovers between the two leagues look set to continue in the years to come.