I have to tell you that over the next however many pages it takes I am going to regale you with stories of basketball, the McDonalds Basketball Tournament from back in the day and playing poker long before the innovation of on-line betting. I will tell you stories that are too amazing to be believed but I promise you they are 100% the truth. Whether you choose to believe them is your decision.
I will also mention the haters; you know who they are. You have tried but you haven’t stopped me yet and you are not going to stop me now. I know lots of people who have never made a mistake; I find they are usually the people who have never done nothing.
I love it when Serena Williams, one of my favourite tennis players, wins Wimbledon…again and the first thing she does when she is interviewed is to thank God. Well I thank God every day for my life and I thank Him now that I was here in Manchester to witness one of the greatest nights of my life.
So where do I start?
I can well remember my first encounter with basketball. For the first time in my life round about the age of 11, I was living away from home. I was at boarding school in Grenada, big shout-out for the GBSS massive.
Back then they told us we could change the world but we didn’t believe them.
Unfortunately for me in my first term there were no places in the halls of residence so I lived with some members of my extended family on the waterfront in St Georges. Amazingly in a space between two houses was a basketball court. All concrete with a little cut-out in the walls for the table officials (lol).
In the second year I was lucky enough to get into halls and had the time of my life. Back then we made our own entertainment which was usually talking about girls, and talk is all we did, playing cards, mainly poker or having our wonderful Saturday night debates. It was here that I learned to argue my case. I can say that I have put that stuff to good use since then.
So my first taste of basketball was on the waterfront of St Georges but within two years I would leave Grenada and Carriacou and head for Engerland. (This is not a misspell, it is how we said it back then in the Caribbean.)
I had been here a few years and made some great friends when one of my mates Robert Finlayson asked me if I wanted to go to a basketball game. Well I didn’t even know that Basketball was played in England but I took him up on his offer.
So it is Saturday night and we arrive at the Stretford Sports Centre. I have absolutely no idea what year it was but I do know that Jeff Jones and Bob Martin were the American imports for the team. Back then the teams were allowed two foreign players. They didn’t have to be Americans but they invariably were.
I have to say I fell in love with the sport on the spot.
The thing that I loved most was the fact that it was indoors.
Now you have to understand that where I come from it is truly 90 degrees in the shade all year round. My only experience with sport in this country was playing football and running cross country at Two Trees school in Denton. Football was fine when the weather was fine but purgatory when it wasn’t and cross country was purgatory all the time.
I did attend two football games back then, one at Old Trafford and the other at Maine Road. On both occasions it was to see the Manchester clubs taking on each other. The football was glorious and it was a joy to see players of the calibre of George Best, Bobby Charlton, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee. I loved the football but couldn’t do with the temperatures.
So finding an indoor sport was a total joy for me.
I loved that first game and continued to go to games with Robert who was the commentator at the time. I do not remember the names of many of the players in those early days but I do remember the legend that was Larry Dassie.
Larry Dassie was the epitome of cool and he played his basketball as if he could do it in his sleep. Unfortunately within a couple of years he would be dead having been involved in a major car accident, I think.
As I say Robert was the commentator, but I use that term loosely. Commentators were actually announcers who introduced the teams, and gave out the name of the scorer or the player fouling or being fouled. They did little else, but that was because they were not allowed to. (There will be more on this later in this piece)
On this faithful night at Altrincham Leisure centre where the Giants were playing, the game was astonishingly good but Robert continued to announce in his usual way so I suggested that he passed me the microphone. Amazingly he did and I went to work.
Well at the end of the night all hell broke loose with the visiting team complaining, the referees complaining , the visiting fans complaining and the Commissioner also having his pennies worth.
I went home after the game elated after the victory and arrived for the next game to find two microphones in place, one for Robert and the other for me. You see the guy running the club loved what I had done and more importantly, the owner was delighted.
From those early days I have been a basketball commentator and to be honest we had to rewrite the rule book on what was allowed. There would be years of negotiation between the club and the EBBA, there would be regular complaints but we eventually got to a point where everybody was happy.
Everybody that is except visiting fans. Well you can’t please everybody.
Basically I could say almost anything I wanted but I was not allowed to comment on refereeing decisions.
Did I ever get it wrong…hell yes but I as I said earlier the person who has never made a mistake has probably never done anything. Do I regret anything that I said over the years? Well I remember one night in particular. The Giants were playing against Crystal Palace I think and Steve Bontrager was warming up along with the rest of the team.
Now Bontrager was a scoring machine who would destroy teams on his own, Over the microphone I said , “man are you never injured”? When I saw the look on his face I knew that I had said the wrong thing. I didn’t want him to be injured, it was just a throwaway line but he was hurt. I would be more careful in the future.
Eventually I would take over the commentating duties completely and I would then get invited to commentate at all the big Basketball Finals. I absolutely loved it.
So that was my start in basketball back the late 70s and I have been at it ever since.
Over the years I have commentated on other sports as well at the arenas and then on just about every Television company as well. I have had some wonderful times and some crap times as well. The high spot for me would definitely be hosting the prelude to the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester 10 years ago this week.
Of course we only applied for and won the Commonwealth Games after our 2 bids for the Olympics failed.
Part of the legacy of the Commonwealth Games was the fact that we were left with World Class venues in the City of Manchester, the most spectacular being the Manchester Arena.
For a time back in the day, the Arena hosted the Manchester Giants in the British Basketball League and that was a glorious time for basketball in this city.
But the Giants eventually went out of business and the Arena continued to make its money hosting music concerts with the odd sporting event thrown in.
In 2005 London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics and I began to wonder how Manchester could get a piece a the action?
With respect to Martin Luther King, I had a dream that one day Kobe Bryant would play at this fantastic venue. I plotted out a plan to make it happen.
Now I told you that some of this is going to sound like fiction but as I also said it is all true.
During 2007 I wrote to the Leader of Manchester City Council suggesting I had an idea as to how Manchester could get something tangible from the 2012 Olympics. Sir Richard Leese is one of the most visionary people I know and I thought he would see me. Unfortunately he did not, but I did within days get a reply dated 12/06/07 from the Head of Major Sport Events for the City, Jim Quigley.
He invited me to a meeting and told me all about Manchester’s plans for major sporting events. I outlined my plans to him.
My plan was simple…to have the USA Basketball team based in the City of Manchester before they went to the Games in London.
I told him that the media would be concentrating of the 100m Final but for those of us who knew what went on in 1992 in Barcelona, Basketball was always going to be the BIG Ticket and the USA team was going to be the BIGGEST Ticket of all. We just had to get them to Manchester.
This was the beginning of this wonderful journey that would end on this glorious night.
All photos by Mike Shaft except where stated.
Added June 2014 – In May of 2014, I travelled to the Caribbean for a family funeral and took the opportunity to visit some places that live long in the memory. One of those was the first place I ever experienced the sport of basketball. Luckily I was able to get a photo of the court.
It was just as I remembered it!
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