UK

Brixton Topcats: How Jimmy Rogers' basketball club inspires thousands

Brixton Topcats training session Image copyright Owen Harvey

The noise in London's Brixton Recreation Centre is deafening as at least 100 youngsters run around two courts playing basketball.

Shouts from the coaches echo across the hall as the energetic members of the Brixton Topcats - a basketball club that has global recognition - run up and down the hall, shooting hoops.

There's a strong sense of community here.

The club is based at the heart of Brixton, one of south London's most multicultural areas.

Parents stand at the sidelines, chatting and watching their children play.

Many of them are former members of the club and have now brought back their own offspring to train.

Image copyright Owen Harvey

"Everyone here has a story", one says.

Successful professional basketball players, solicitors, journalists, TV presenters and doctors all count as alumni of the 34-year-old club.

And many of them attribute their success to one man: the club's founder Jimmy Rogers, who died earlier this month.

"I think it is amazing to be honest, what he has achieved over the generations," says Richard Thomas, Jimmy's son, as he watches a training session from the courtside.

It is the first time Richard - known as Carlos - has returned to the club in "many years", he says.

Image copyright Owen Harvey

He has been touched by the condolences he has received following the death of his father.

"He has got kids that he sends to America - about 78 went to college to play basketball," Mr Thomas says of his dad - known to many as the Bishop of Brixton.

"Jimmy has done many things for many people in the Brixton community."

Jimmy officially formed the club in 1984, against the backdrop of the early 1980s race riots in Brixton and more widely across cities in England.

Image copyright Owen Harvey

The club says its aim, as it was then, is to provide high quality opportunities for young people in south London.

It says it has impacted on the lives of thousands of inner-city children in the last quarter century.

The nickname "Topcats" was inspired by the 1960s cartoon of the same name, relevant for its parody of the relationship between young people in the community and the police.

"Most of these people [who went to the club] were told they weren't going to amount to anything," says Marvin Ambrosius, a former member who went on to play for England for seven years.

"'Drive the body' was the motto here - that is the synonymous phrase.

"It is a phrase meaning 'life is going to give you challenges' and that was exactly what this club taught. It has established community spirit."

Image copyright Owen Harvey

Mr Ambrosius is now a TV presenter and a motivational speaker. He attributes the confidence that he has to the club, because he became comfortable playing basketball in front of crowds as a child.

"If Jimmy had that confidence in me it is only right I have that confidence in myself," he says.

"I have been here since 1984. I am a product of this club."

Image copyright Owen Harvey

"Jimmy taught me a lot," says Andrea Boreland, a former member who now coaches the London Lions and 16-19 year olds at Hackney Community College.

"He put me in a position to get out and coach.

"He always told me to keep striving to do what I want to do."

Image copyright Owen Harvey

Perhaps one of the most famous ex-members is NBA basketball player Luol Deng, who was trained by Jimmy as a child.

At his peak, Deng earned £120,000 a week at Chicago Bulls and was one of the UK's highest earning sportsmen.

"At the time all I wanted to do was to be a professional football player, but you kept telling me that I could be pretty good at basketball and here I am today, going into my 15th season in the NBA," Deng posted on Instagram, on hearing of Jimmy's death.

"In life, we are so lucky if we find someone who believes in you and is willing to give everything to see you reach the top."

Ziad Chaudry, a friend of Jimmy's who would volunteer to promote the club, says Jimmy was a father figure to the club's members and calls him an inspiration.

"The club is not just about basketball, it is about a community. It is about one man who helped everyone," he says.

He just wanted to get kids off the street, it didn't matter if you were black, white, Asian...

"We are telling these kids here 'if we can do it, you can too.' We are all role models to these kids."

Image copyright Owen Harvey

Jimmy's message, discipline and determined mentality appears to have filtered down to the current young members.

"Jimmy was a nice guy," says 15-year-old Hakim, who has ambitions to turn professional. "It is a good club, they develop you in a way that other clubs don't.

"They take you on no matter what your skill, gender, age, so anyone."

"It is really good and supportive, especially for a girl playing basketball," says Luiza, 15.

"Jimmy never went easy on us. All very supportive. I never felt left out for being a girl."

Image copyright Alamy

The news of Jimmy's death on 1 October prompted an outpouring of tributes and tales on social media of how one man changed so many people's lives.

"I wouldn't have probably met my wife, wouldn't have had my children," says Mr Ambrosius. "I don't think one person can imagine not meeting Jimmy.

"That is why a lot of people are really mourning.

"Jimmy was an icon."

Image copyright Brixton Topcats
Image caption Jimmy Rogers passed away earlier this month

Mr Thomas - one of the club's original members - says it was his father's philosophy that inspired many.

"Winning is an attitude. It is not about winning a game of basketball, it is about winning the game of life."

Photos by Owen Harvy

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