It’s not the biggest surprise British basketball has ever had, but London Lituanica withdrew from NBL Division One this morning.
It certainly wasn’t a shock to me as I’d been told on August 25 that were dead. Fueled by a fair amount of drink – well I was on holiday – I grabbed the bull by the horns (or maybe the horn by the balls, it was hard to tell at that stage of the evening) and contacted their (former) GM Linas Brikidas and asked what was going on.
I knew Linas had stepped away from the club in the summer, but having met with a blank when trying to contact his replacement to set up a scrimmage, I knew I’d be wasting my time with that.
And that was the problem. The new guy – who owns their 2016/17 main sponsors – had done nothing, and had decided not to run the club this season.
Linas was clearly pissed off, and whatever people think of the idea of a Lithuanian basketball club playing in the English league, he’d put a lot of work into the club and it was on the verge of collapsing. I know how I’d feel in his situation.
A phone call followed next morning (yeah, some holiday) and he put forward a proposal to merge the club under the Essex Leopards name playing in Division One at the Brentwood Centre with a mixture of British and Lithuanian players/coaches. A weekend of discussion via email followed for the Leopards’ board before we decided not to proceed with it. The logistics of re-arranging a season’s worth of games at a venue we only have (very) limited access to was an issue, as was whether BE would allow such a move after refusing Barking Abbey permission for a similar “merger” with Kent. Above all, we didn’t feel after a summer of trying to get players to commit early and having worked hard on being organised, we didn’t think we should let people down and stagger into the new season with a mis-match of players, just so we could play in Division One.
We did – and we were being really kind here – offer to switch divisions if they felt they could continue at a lower level. That wasn’t taking the piss, it costs ten times as much to register a Lithuanian player (about £400) as opposed to a British player in Division One – which must be illegal – while in Division Two you’re looking at £107. There’s less games to lose money on, and there’s less travelling in Division Two this season, and we were willing to offer them a bit of cash. I never received an answer.
On the grapevine I’d since heard they had talks with another London D2 club, but clearly that fell throw as well.
So, Division One will be a team short, clubs who budget for a certain amount of home games will be out of pocket, those who were due to play them in the next month or so might even have to pay for the venue hire. Hemel face two away games in the National Trophy and none at home, which IS a financial hit for them, though I suspect they’ll still qualify.
Am I bitter that Division One is running a team short? Yeah, a bit, but I’m a bit sanguine about it really. We were relegated in March, I’ve come to terms with it. If they’d folded in June or even July we’d have been begging BE for a reprieve but I don’t blame Linas for keeping going until all was lost. I’d do the same if it was a matter of saving Leopards, while I care about the game in this country, I’d put my club first.
Certainly BE could’ve been more proactive with Lituanica. They allowed them to fail to fulfill fixtures, they allowed them to consistently travel to away games short-handed. They allowed them to play at a court that doesn’t meet Division One standards, they regularly failed to do things like stats and programmes. But it’s easier to do nothing.
But is it a loss to British basketball? Well, despite never wanting to see clubs collapse, not really. They weren’t remotely inclusive, they made no effort to promote the game or club outside ex-pat Lithuanians. No one watched them, outside a small group of players, no one will really notice.
For all that, I’ll still silently curse them when we start life in Division Two on Sunday.