Commonwealth Games could be key to Scottish basketball

By Amy MacBeathBBC Sport Scotland
Kieron Achara playing basketball for Glasgow Rocks
Forward Kieron Achara playing for Glasgow Rocks in the British Basketball League at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow

Scotland is not exactly known for its prowess in basketball, so it might come as a surprise that the current Great Britain captain is from Stirling.

In fact, 6'10" Kieron Achara is somewhat of a poster boy for the sport, being the national skipper and leading Scotland's only professional side, Glasgow Rocks.

Along with forward Gareth Murray from Abroath, he helped GB qualify for their first EuroBasket tournament in 2017, the sport's biggest biennial competition on this continent.

But the 33-year-old said the chance to pull on a Scotland vest would be a "huge deal".

"I was very unfortunate to miss the Commonwealth Games in 2006," Achara told BBC Scotland.

"I tore my shoulder and was devastated so to have another opportunity to go in 2018 is something I really hope happens.

"I do a lot of volunteer work going into schools to talk about sport and being active.

"A lot of kids were talking about the 2014 Games - the hype was there, the buzz was there, but unfortunately basketball didn't get to be there.

"That would have made a huge difference, so 2018 could be our starting point and a chance to rebuild and make sure kids are getting inspired to play the sport."

Kieron Achara at London 2012 Olympics
Now captain of Great Britain, Kieron Achara was part of the London 2012 Olympic men's basketball team

"The British league is a competitive league, there's a lot of players from all over the world so that's a head start. But we're obviously going to be competing for Scotland so that's not enough and test games will be vital too."

Work has already begun to get Scotland to the Games - SportScotland has provided an additional £280,000 of funding to basketballscotland for the governing body to invest in their performance programmes.

That includes bringing on board two national full-time coaches to work closely with both the men's and women's teams, and athletes have been brought back home to Scotland to train and play together in the build-up to 2018.

Erik Olson has recently been recruited as the men's national performance coach, with experience in Australia and Iceland since his playing days with Falkirk Fury.

Although the qualification process has not been announced, he explained work to ensure they make the cut is well under way.

Olson said: "By having our key players and many young players playing here in the BBL and the national league we have that platform to continue our improvement which we've not had in years past as there's been a bit of a disconnect.

"We feel we're in a great spot to lead that qualification with the strength of the British Basketball League.

"We have great facilities, great support and the ability now to have our key players playing together. We're not where we want to be yet as we'd like to have more of those key players and some more young kids."

Scotland's new men's basketball national performance coach Erik Olson
Scotland's new men's national performance coach Erik Olson will work closely with Glasgow Rocks to help get the basketball team to the Commonwealth Games in 2018

The American added: "There's no greater thing than watching your country play at the world stage - whether it's football or basketball.

"If you are a young player and you see guys like Achara and Murray it gives you a goal, a target to work towards and it's no different on the world stage."

In a bid to grow participation and develop opportunities for female players, Scotland also now has its first professional basketball team, who are part of the British Women's Basketball League.

Caledonia Pride join the 10 team franchise with their debut against Leicester Riders on 9 October.

And playing in the British Women's Basketball League provides vital experience which could help Scotland get to the Gold Coast, something Pride shooting guard Sarah Thomson believes will be a turning point for the next generation.

"It gives them a sense of hope and inspiration that they can do something with their sporting career," she said.

"The Commonwealth Games would be the icing on the cake for all of us athletes, especially for us in a minority sports, as basketball isn't huge here.

"For such a small country to get there would be fantastic, not just for us but our families and everyone watching too."

Caledonia Pride player Sarah Thomson
Caledonia Pride shooting guard Sarah Thomson wants to get Scotland to the Commonwealth Games in 2018 to help inspire girls to play sport

And Thomson believes their work now will only lead to better things: "We are just the starting point. It's not just the two-year programme but almost like a legacy for basketball in Scotland to have young girls and boys coming through.

"We can be something to look up to when they get to our age and realise they can achieve something in sport."

It's a thought echoed by Achara, who strongly advocates the off-court benefits of playing basketball.

"We're doing a great job of targeting schools, getting younger kids getting involved. They need to have opportunities, to aspire to be something," he said.

"For me it was the opportunity to go to America on a scholarship - that was my carrot - and having professional teams (Rocks and Pride) on our doorstep, those are incentives to get people to stick out the game and maybe go to university and get degrees, as well as playing a sport they love."

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