The Glasgow Rocks were perched atop of the British Basketball League table in pursuit of their maiden championship when the 2019-20 campaign came to an abrupt halt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.
Their bid to replicate that title charge begins this week as the new league campaign tips off upon the BBL’s eagerly-anticipated return to Sky Sports.
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Thursday’s season opener will see the B. Braun Sheffield Sharks take on the Cheshire Phoenix, before the Newcastle Eagles host the London Lions in a clash of two expected frontrunners for silverware.
And with that, here’s our beginner’s guide to the highest tier of professional basketball in the UK…
What is the BBL?
The BBL was founded in 1987 and leads the English Basketball League and the Scottish Basketball Championship as the highest level of the sport in the UK, consisting of 11 franchises across the country.
All 11 teams compete in the BBL Championship in a double round robin format, at the end of which the side with the most points are named British champions. The top eight ranked teams then progress to the playoffs where they face off in a knockout tournament for postseason honours.
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The playoffs are conducted as they are in the NBA, with the first-ranked team facing the eighth-ranked team, the second-ranked facing the seventh-ranked and so on in a three-game series, with London’s O2 Arena having played stage to the final since the 2014-15 season.
As with the NBA’s Eastern and Western Conferences, the BBL experimented with North and South conferences in 1999, with the respective champions facing off in a Championship series. The league re-introduced a single division format three years later in 2002 and have retained it ever since.
BBL 2020/21 Fixtures live on Sky
Besides the postseason tournament, the BBL also runs two additional knockout competitions in the form of the BBL Cup and the BBL Trophy, originally named the Anglo-Scottish Cup.
The BBL Cup began in 2003 and since 2019-20 has consisted of a group stage followed by a knockout phase which sees teams divided into North and South groups.
The BBL Trophy, which started as a tournament between teams from the English and Scottish leagues, is a straight knockout tournament that sees teams drawn randomly against one another without seedings, having stepped away from its initial group format. English Basketball League and Scottish Basketball League sides are also able to take part alongside BBL teams in the competition.
Portsmouth became the first ever BBL Championship winners when they clinched the 1987-88 title ahead of the Kingston Kings, only to be beaten by Murray Livingston in the postseason.
A league and playoff double from the Glasgow Rangers in 1988-89 was then followed up by southern dominance as the Kings matched their double feat for three straight seasons before the Worthing Bears (later renamed the Brighton Bears) emerged postseason champions for the next three years.
Last 10 BBL seasons
The Leopards and the London Towers also broke onto the scene in the first decade, as did the Sharks, who had won three titles by the end of 2003, including their most recent, on the back of the brief North-South split.
In regards to dynasties, the Eagles boast a prominent place in that conversation as the most successful side in BBL history with 25 domestic trophies to their name. That includes seven league titles, six playoff victories, five BBL Cups and five BBL Trophy triumphs (including last season), as well as their famous clean sweep in all four back in 2005-06.
The Leicester Riders are on their tail having won four league titles and been runners-up twice in the past seven seasons (not including the 2019-20 campaign), as well as winning the playoffs for three consecutive years since 2016. They are meanwhile two-time BBL Cup champions and three-time BBL Trophy winners, the latter of which they were victorious in three years running from 2015 to 2018.
BBL Championship winners
Leicester became the first British team to compete on a European platform last season since the Guildford Heat in 2007 as they participated in the Basketball Champions League, where they were knocked out by the Bakker Bears in the opening qualification round. As a result, they later featured in the FIBA Europe Cup.
The Lions, coached and owned by former BBL chairman Vince Macaulay, are the most recent league champions after edging out the Riders to win their first title in 2018-19. They re-located to London from Milton Keynes back in 2012 before making the Copper Box Arena in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park their new home.
Players to watch
The BBL has produced its fair share of greats over the past 30 years, whether it be nine-time champion Peter Scantlebury, who represented England 143 times before coaching them to Commonwealth bronze in Melbourne in 2006, or the similarly prolific Atlanta-born Tony Dorsey and New York-born Billy Singleton.
British basketball has also had multiple ties to the NBA. Former Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz center John Amaechi played for the Sharks in 1997, five-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls Dennis Rodman played three games for the Brighton Bears in 2006 and Fabulous Flournoy, the Toronto Raptors’ Assistant Video Coordinator / Player Development, played and coached for the Eagles from 2001 to 2019.
That barely scratches the surface of the league’s links overseas.
Of the BBL’s current crop heading into the new season, it makes sense to start with the Lions’ Justin Robinson, who is the reigning back-to-back league MVP. He averaged 16.9 points and 4.9 assists last season, with Ovie Soko leading the team with 20.2 points (tied-2nd in the league) before signing a one-year deal with LNB Pro A club Le Mans Sarthe Basket in France.
Newcastle are led by two-time league MVP Rahmon Fletcher, who averaged a league-high nine assists last season, however find themselves without the 2019-20 league leader in points and rebounds CJ Gettys after he signed in Japan. The Eagles will again have veteran Darius Defoe at their disposal after the 36-year-old signed up for his 17th season.
Sky Sports’ very own Mike Tuck is back for his 12th season with the Sharks, while the Surrey Scorchers retained Lovell Cook, who averaged 19.1 points (3rd-most) last year, and Tayo Ogedengbe, who is entering his sixth season.
The Rocks are boosted by the presence of GB forward Gareth Murray following player-coach Vincent Lavandier’s move to France, Denzel Ubiaro is a young talent to keep an eye out for with the Plymouth Raiders, and Jordan Whelan could have a big role to play for the Manchester Giants as he makes his return following spells elsewhere in the league.
Robinson of the Lions, Ashley Hamilton of the Raiders, Conner Washington of the Riders, Teddy Okereafor and Rex Pflueger of the Eagles made up the five BBL players to be named to the 24-man squad that represented Great Britain in last month’s FIBA EuroBasket 2022 qualifiers against France and Montenegro.
The Manchester Giants looked overseas this summer as they sought to fill the void left by key players Ingus Bankevics, Callum Jones and James Jones.
Sam Cassell Jr, the son of three-time NBA champion Sam Cassell, joins having featured in the NBA Summer League twice, Donovan Johnson arrives after spending the last five seasons playing in Argentina and Breaon Brady enters the fold as a NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen competitor with the University of Houston Cougars.
The Cheshire Phoenix responded to losing Parker Jackson-Cartwright, last season’s team leader in points and assists, by introducing American duo Kathron Ross and Devin Mitchell.
BBL summer signings
Stay up-to-date with every BBL signing of the summer.
Newcastle turned to Justin Gordon and Evan Maxwell in a bid to compensate for the loss of Gettys, while the Riders acquired American guard Zach Jackson, who played for Ukrainian Superleague side Kharkivski Sokoly last season after four years in college at Omaha Maverick.
It’s been a busy offseason for the Lions, who have made a league-high 15 signings ahead of the start of the new campaign. Former NBA duo Byron Mullens and DeAndre Liggins have teamed up with the London franchise, along with Louisville and Georgia State product Kevin Ware, who famously sustained a horrific leg break against Duke in March 2013.
The Sharks made a change at point guard this offseason, bringing in San Diego State product Jeremy Hemsley to replace Mackey McKnight. Bowling Green graduate Antwon Lillard also landed in Sheffield this offseason after winning 2020 NBLC Rookie of the Year with the Island Storm in the Canadian NBL.
Following the departure of 2019-20 leading scorer Ali Fraser, the Rocks signed Southern Miss’ Boban Jacdonmi and Dutch forward Julius Van Sauers.
Worcester have added three American rookies to their ranks in Brandon Anderson, Lamaar Kimble and KJ Lawson, and the Flyers have secured the services of former Raiders guard Josh Wilcher.
The departure of 2018-19 points leader Rashad Hassan meanwhile prompted the Scorchers to re-sign former NBA Draft pick and GB international Ryan Richards, who arrives for his third spell with the team after beginning the season in Belgium with Phoenix Brussels.
BBL returns to Sky Sports
Sky Sports has announced that coverage of the British Basketball League will return to Sky’s screens this season. The two-year agreement will see Sky Sports air 30 live BBL matches a season.
As part of the agreement Sky Sports will air both the men’s and women’s finals including BBL Trophy Final, BBL Cup Final, BBL Playoffs.
Sky Sports coverage will include expert analysis from Kieron Achara MBE, who was part of the London 2012 Olympics Basketball squad, and current Newcastle star Drew Lasker.
Sky Sports is the home of basketball in the UK and Ireland with the BBL complemented by exclusively live coverage of the NBA and WNBA on the channel. Clips, highlights and best-of content can be found on skysports.com, YouTube and Sky Sports’ social media platforms.
Want to watch even more of the NBA and WNBA but don’t have Sky Sports? Get the Sky Sports Action and Arena pack, click here.
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