LEICESTER RIDER’S DIRECTOR KEVIN ROUTLEDGE WRITES ABOUT THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF THE CLUBS HISTORY AND HOW THEY HAVE COME TO BE THE MULTI-WINNING TEAM THEY ARE TODAY.
This summer at the national basketball champions, the Leicester Riders, launched their new logo to celebrate the greatest season in their history. The Leicester Basketball Club is recognized as Britain’s oldest operating at the top flight and that history was crowned last season with their first ever league Championship, BBL Cup Final and BBL Playoff Final wins thrown in – it was a treble to remember.
The new logo incorporates a ‘67’ to recognize that the Club was founded at Loughborough University in April 1967, at a time when basketball was one of the major 4 sports in the US; whilst being hugely popular across western Europe and embraced by the Soviet Union and their satellites as a major tool of confrontation in the cold war with the US. But at that time there was no national league in the UK and the sport was largely confined to schools, YMCAs and American air force bases across England.
Bob Wilson is a former player and coach of the Club, while attending the University between 1966 and 1970, and was at the very first meeting when the Loughborough All Stars were established:“In those days, before there was a league, both London Central YMCA and Manchester YMCA were very good teams, as were the British Army and Air Force teams. And, of course, we played against teams based at the many US bases dotted around the UK, who tended to be very good. Basically we went looking for games where ever we could find them.”
Wilson, aged 65, was point guard for the All Stars team, which also toured abroad, playing teams in Europe. Success came quickly – National Cup semi-finalists in their first year; and Great Britain Club champions in 1968. In 1970 Loughborough won the Dublin Invitational International Tournament, and in 1971 the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. In 1972 the All Stars were invited to represent Great Britain in a “Fanfare for Europe” International Tournament.
The National League was finally established in England in 1972 by the National Governing Body and Loughborough were invited in, finishing fourth. For the first 7 years of the National League, when Americans like Kevin King, Billy DeMarle and Jimmy Young played for the Club, the All Stars finished between 4th and 6th place.
However the finances soon ran out and the Club dropped out of the National League for 2 seasons: 1979/80 and 1980/81. Despite this they were still playing, and playing well as they duly won the Founders Cup both seasons; the top competition in the country at that time for non-National League teams.
These wins got them back into the second Division of the National League in 1981 and an invitation from Leicester City Council to play at the recently refurbished Granby Halls. Marty Headd of Syracuse University and Lonnie Legette were the foreign players, and the All Stars duly won the Second Division – undefeated – won the National Trophy, and were beaten semi-finalists in the National Cup. This got them into the top flight, along with a name change to Planters Leicester, Headd and Legette back and Wilson returning as coach, they finished 5th in the First Division before a full house of 2,500 at the Granby Halls.
The sponsorship involvement of Leicester City Council saw another name change to the Riders in 1986, but in spite of multiple Wembley playoff appearances there was no silverware. Overseas players like Eugene Waldron, Olympian Danny Meagher, Clyde Vaughan and Chilli Payton joined up with home grown talent like Carl Olsson, Steve O’Shea and Paul James to grace the Granby Halls, which was the place to be on a Saturday night in Leicester.
In 1987, the BBL was established as an independent entity controlling the top flight of the game, signed in the boardroom of Manchester United Football Club, the Riders were inaugural members, and have been in the BBL ever since. 2001 brought silverware in the National Cup and BBL Playoff Final, but also saw the demolition of Granby Halls, leaving Riders to return to Loughborough University, in the absence of any other venue in the city.
Eventually they returned to the John Sandford Centre at DMU in 2004, but with that venue now also scheduled for a complete overhaul and conversion, the spectacle of becoming homeless again hung over the national champions.
Wilson is now based at one of the US’s top basketball powerhouses, Syracuse University, which has the highest attendances in US college basketball averaging 24,000 a game and superlative facilities, so he knows a thing or two about the global game that basketball has become, with over 450 million players in 211 countries.
Wilson has just made his second visit to Leicester in recent years, and is impressed with the standard of play of the current Riders: knew all about his quality, as his subsequent career, including in the London Olympics, has undoubtedly emphasized. We tended in my playing days to rely more heavily on our 2 import players, while, these days, it is evident there is a lot more strength and depth. The sport of basketball in Leicestershire looks in very good shape.”
Wilson liked the fact that the Club is emphasizing the importance of its history in the new logo saying, “It is marvellous the Club has recognized its’ early beginnings. At that time we were just a bunch of students who wanted to play the sport at the highest level we could. Forming the team, and seeking out the best competition, seemed the logical step. Forming the national league seemed the next step. Moving to the refurbished Granby Halls in 1981 seemed magical at the time. The Riders now look well on the way to taking the sport in the city to another level, but they desperately need a home – preferably a dedicated facility.”
Wilson meanwhile follows every Riders result through the internet, “Winning the treble last season was an exceptional achievement. Some might say, ‘well they took their time’! – but I know just how hard it is, and the journey “The quality of players has undoubtedly gone up over the years, and the Riders look a very impressive team. Drew Sullivan is a player we tried to recruit to Syracuse, so we they have taken