Young athletes in Birmingham are making the grade as they pursue their hoop dreams. Richard McComb gets court side.
David Grice gets up around 6am and promptly leaves his home in a north Warwickshire village for his school across the other side of Birmingham.
It’s a tough regime but lessons here start at 7.15am and this 18-year-old wouldn’t miss them for the world.
He’s got an addiction, one shared by his fellow pupils. His teachers can’t do anything about it. In fact, they actively encourage it because without it some of the boys might not bother turning up for class.
David has got the basketball bug. It explains why he is prepared to break sweat in the sports hall when many pupils his age are languishing in bed. For an hour, he and fellow members of Lordswood Basketball Academy have shooting practice, honing their jumps, body positioning and hand rotation while studying the ball’s flight. And they concentrate; above all, they concentrate. They enter another place, a place only competitive sport can take them.
“I love basketball. It is my passion. Nothing can compare to the feeling I get when I am on the court,” says David.
After an hour of free throws and lay ups, the pupils start daily lessons. They have to. Why? Because if they don’t, they’re not allowed to play basketball.
Lordswood operates a successful system of rewards and sanctions to motivate its athletes. Put simply, if there’s no work, there’s no play.
Late for lessons? No basketball training.
“But there’s a game that night, sir.” Tough – you’re missing that, too.
Bad behaviour or poor academic work are punished, not indulged. If basketball players forget their homework they’re benched. No ifs, buts, or maybes. There’s zero tolerance for slacking.
Everyone knows where they stand and during the time I spend in the company of the academy’s latest intake it’s clear the discipline code, allied to an ethos of endeavour and enjoyment, breeds an attribute sadly lacking in far too many educational establishments: non-negotiable respect.
Lordswood Basketball Academy is at Lordswood Girls School in Harborne, one of the top performing single-sex comprehensives in the country.
The school runs a mixed-sex sixth form centre and it is here the basketball players pursue their academic studies alongside their sporting aspirations.
The boys (they are young men really) tower over most of the girls. There may have been a novelty element when the project was launched in 2005, some giggling in the corridors, but today the basketball academy is embedded in the school’s culture.
David, like the other pupils, could have gone to rival academies, but Lordswood’s reputation was decisive.
“I chose Lordswood as the best fit for me. The subject teaching and the coaching offered here played a huge part,” says David, who sat his GCSEs at a school in Warwick.
He is studying for a level 3 BTEC in sport (a work-related A-level equivalent) and A-level art. A quick glance at the qualifications of the academy’s alumni shows a high proportion studied BTEC sport and there are A-levels from across the board, from English and psychology to mathematics and chemistry.
There is, though, one outstanding outcome and it is one that education policy-makers would do well to take note of: the vast majority of basketball academy pupils go on to further education.
Of those who don’t (and the numbers are very small), there’s a 100 per cent strike rate on finding employment. Some of the pupils are academically very able, others less so.
But none flunk out. To use a term popular in US college basketball: failure is not an option. The achievement is all the more remarkable when you take into account the academy’s – and the school’s – non-selective intake. Some schools make diamonds out of diamonds; Lordswood goes one better than that.
The academy reached a new landmark when one of its graduates pulled off the ultimate and turned pro.
Myles Hesson, who left Lordswood in 2009, was signed by Essex Pirates and subsequently won a scholarship to attend university in London. “It was a break-through year,” says the academy’s coach, Andrew Guppy. Two other boys have gone to America on high school exchanges and two – one of them is David – are going to a basketball academy in Serbia later this year to get a feel for the European game.
I join Guppy courtside at Nechells Community Sports Centre.
It is one of three venues the squad use to train every week day after school. The full-size court offers the sort of facilities Guppy and his charges can only dream of at Lordswood, which has a modest gym. If you’ve got a few million quid going spare, they’d be very grateful.
Actually, £500 would be a good start. The squad is desperate for a new strip, the current one being several years old. Lordswood is happy to consider sponsorship on the shirts. It’s a great opportunity for a forward-thinking company who wants to be associated with educational and sporting success, especially as Team GB has now been cleared to take part in basketball at the 2012 Olympic Games.
The commitment of the boys, not to mention their fitness, stamina and skills, is quite something.
If you’ve ever felt disenchanted with “the youth of the today” go and watch Lordswood Basketball Academy work out. Those boys can fly. Taking a break from supervising a warm-up game, Guppy explains a “typical” Monday. Having arrived at school for day-break shooting practice, the pupils attend a regular day of timetabled lessons. At break-time and lunch, they can probably be found in the gym, shooting again, always shooting.
When the school bell goes, the squad get in a minibus and go to Nechells to train for two hours from 4pm-6pm. Some of them then go straight into a City of Birmingham Under-18s work-out from 6pm to 7.30pm – and for the older boys there is Under-23s training from 7.30pm-9pm.
“Some of them will be here training from 4pm-9pm. They play for all three teams,” says Guppy, a 6ft 8in forward and former England schoolboy player whose dreams were shattered when his ankles did just that – snapping three times.
The coach leads by example and often doesn’t arrive home in Solihull until after 10pm.
“If the boys want to they can live, sleep and breathe basketball. It is up to them how much they immerse themselves,” he says.
The academy has had pupils from tough backgrounds on its books. I ask Guppy what road some of them might have chosen but for the allure of the academy.
“Heaven only knows,” he says. “But basketball really is a positive outlet for them. And because we have had success in the past, we draw in new kids.
“But the academy is not just about winning. It is about lessons in life. Even if the boys play professionally they will stop when they are 30 and it is about reinforcing the right messages. There is not a single student who has left the academy and failed to do something else, whether that is employment, education or an apprenticeship.”
Head teacher Jane Gotschel says more than 60 pupils, both boys and girls, have successfully completed two years sixth Form study as part of the academy programme.
Mrs Gotschel says: “The focus is on academic performance first, with basketball training, games and tournaments the reward for attaining their best academically. Our full time basketball coach Andrew Guppy is an excellent role model for the pupils and he places great emphasis on other more general life skills such as team work, respect and fair play.
“Our collective aim is to produce caring, well-balanced citizens with a sporting talent to complement their academic qualifications which will hopefully allow them to progress into adult life with confidence and maturity.”
Jamal Shaw is one of Lordswood’s rookies. The 17-year-old joined the academy on the back of glowing recommendations from an older player. He is studying AS-levels in biology and psychology and BTEC sport and wants to study sports science at university.
Six-foot Jamal, who plays either as a guard or a (small) forward, says: “Even though I spend a lot of time on the basketball court and going to the gym I have to balance it with the academic side.” Sloppiness isn’t accepted. He says: “If you are late on a day you cannot train or play in a game that day. We keep on top of punctuality. We have to watch our standards of behaviour and study in class.”
Teachers’ concerns or pupil misdemeanours are swiftly reported to the coach but there is never any resentment. “We are all cool with it,” says Jamal, of Ladywood, the sweat pouring off him after a basket-to-basket drill. “We respect the coach. He knows what is best for us.”
Justin Roberts, 18, who has been at Lordswood for a year, was born in the Cayman Islands and has lived in New York. He initially attended another basketball academy in Birmingham but did not like it. At Lordswood, everything clicked.
“It is a good atmosphere. There is a good coach who lets you make your own decisions. It helps you grow into men,” says Justin. Armed with 11 GCSEs, he wants to go to university but, like his fellow pupils, he dreams of a professional contract.
Back on the court, David and Jamal are taking part in free throw practice. They have to score 20 out of 25 shots. The penalty is a full court sprint, one for every shot under 20. Both score 16, so they have to run three baseline to baseline sprints. Jamal, who runs along bouncing a ball, just to make it more tricky, finishes neck-and-neck with David. “Photo finish!” shouts the coach.
Another player has just hit every single shot. He’s a free-throw metronome. He throws the ball; the net swishes. Throw, swish. Throw, swish.
He shouts: “25 out of 25!”
His face beaming, Mr 100 Per Cent goes to high-five the coach. Guppy matches up to him, ready for the celebratory gesture, but lifts his hand higher just before their palms connect. They they both laugh.
That’s the thing about Lordswood: you’ve always got to aim higher.
* Would you consider sponsoring Lordswood Basketball Academy’s kit? In the first instance, contact email@example.com
* For more information about the academy, go to: www.lordswoodgirls.co.uk