Manchester Giants meet Sheffield Sharks in rematch of 1999 BBL classic

The Giants’ BBL clash with the Sharks on Friday night brings the current state of British Basketball into sharp focus. 

In April 1999 the two sides sat deadlocked atop the Budweiser British Basketball League with identical 30-5 records with one game to play. 

For the first time in league history the championship would be decided on the final day between it’s two protagonists – a winner takes all title decider, at a packed MEN Arena, live on Sky Sports 1. 

The head coaches on that day were Nick Nurse and Chris Finch. 

Finch, the first person to win the BBL title as a player and coach in 1995, now leads NBA side the Minnesota Timberwolves while Nurse is the head coach of the Toronto Raptors and led them to their first NBA championship in 2019. 

Though Sky’s cameras have now returned to the league, Friday’s affair will only be streamed online, in front of an adoring yet reduced crowd in Belle Vue and with a less famed cast of actors. 

The domestic game is much removed from it’s exalted position at the turn of the century. 

A Mancunian Matters report last month showed that between 2017-2021 British basketball received just £33,500 from the UK’s governing sporting body, the lowest figure of the 14 sports analysed in that period. 

The primary reason that was given was the countries’ limited medal prospects at major tournaments though that explanation has not held water for many campaigners who have accused the government of neglecting a sport which has very high representation of people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. 

Labour MP and Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said in his impassioned speech at the Parliamentary debate on Basketball funding in 2018: “Why is it that hockey received £28.1 million and the Rugby League received £51.6 million?

“Why is it that canoeing, equestrian, cycling, rowing all do so much better? 

“Where is the equity in that formula? 

“And can she satisfy herself [Minister Tracey Crouch] that there is no unintended or unconscious bias in the way that judgements are being made about that funding?”

The dramatic title decider of 1999 was a high watermark for the game on these shores but in the years that followed, despite the sports growing global interest, the BBL has struggled to attract the UK based NBA fan. 

Giants owner Jamie Edwards, a Manchester native and former professional basketball player, purchased the club in January 2020 with a holistic plan to awaken a sleeping Giant

On the challenges the league has faced in growing it’s popularity, he said: “I think they [BBL] are aware of it. They’ve just not known specifically how to do it centrally.

“It’s a bringing together of many factors.

“That then leads to a question. How do I get that person to Belle Vue [Giants stadium]? What’s the connection?

“So what the league has not been good at, or what basketball in general has not been good at, is bringing it all together at the same time.

“That’s a big test.”

In Edwards’ opinion, part of the task is reminding Mancunians of those halcyon days of 1999. He added: “For a lot of people in Manchester it’s about polishing their memories. 

“For example, do you remember when you went to the Arena?

“The game on Friday is against Sheffield and it’s just a shame that this game isn’t on the other side of the year because I’m ordering a third kit which is going to be a replica of the 1990s.”

“It’s about capturing the relevance of the game.”

Under his ownership the Giants have made big strides, progressing to the BBL Cup quarter-finals and achieving their best start to a season since 2012. 

For Edwards their ability to attract players like Team GB captain, Dan Clark, is a sign the team and even the sport domestically is turning the corner. He said: “It’s like the symbol of re-evaluation.

“What the games’ not always had is a Dan Clark spending all his career in Spain coming back to play in the BBL.”

Through owners like Edwards and Sky Sports’ decision to re-engage with the domestic game, there are bright shoots for British basketball – a statement from Sky Sports Managing Director Rob Webster when the partnership was announced read: “We are delighted to welcome the BBL back to Sky Sports. 

“We look forward to showcasing the best of basketball from across the country.

“We hope an event of that magnitude [2022 Commonwealth Games] on UK shores will enable what is a big participation sport to continue its growth.

“We at Sky Sports are thrilled to be able to support the sport.”

That day in April 1999 ended as dramatically as it began but it was heartbreak for the Giants who were buried at the death by Terrell Myers’ buzzer-beater from 18ft. 

It will be difficult for Friday’s match-up to replicate the drama of that night, the crowds may be smaller, and the rosters less glamorous but with a clear vision and renewed partnerships we may just be witnessing the beginning of a new basketball boom.

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