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A man of the People

The American dream has come to Paisley, with youngsters eagerly signing up for basketball teams led by coaches including BBC award-nominated teacher Lindsay Lang. Roddy Mackenzie reports.

Perhaps it is the proximity to Glasgow Airport and the daily trans-Atlantic flights, but there is a slice of American pie to be found around Paisley. St Mirren, the local football team, may have won promotion to the Scottish Premier League, but it is basketball that is taking off at youth level.

A structure has been put in place around the local schools that enables basketball players from as young as seven to follow a path all the way to the local senior club St Mirren, which won the Scottish League title last season.

There are 300 youth players registered with Paisley and District Basketball Association but as many as 500 children in the area get exposure to the sport every week.

It is a remarkable scheme that has grown over five years, with a backbone of 21 qualified coaches. So much so, that Lindsay Lang, the head of physical education at Gryffe High, has been short-listed for a national BBC People's Award, for his outstanding contribution to basketball in the Paisley area.

From hundreds of nominations throughout Britain, he is in the last four and has been invited to the Albert Hall in London on October 6 with his family for the televised awards ceremony.

Mr Lang admits he is "absolutely flabbergasted" by the recognition but is somewhat embarrassed at the misconception that the community scheme has dragged schoolkids away from the "drug barons of Paisley" to play basketball.

It is a cliche that sits well with television but this was not the intention when the basketball programme was started in 1995, even though he concedes there may be some schoolchildren involved who have had a disadvantaged start in life.

"Paisley has got a name for being a violent place with murders and drug barons, but it's just not the case. I'm a Paisley buddy and proud of it," says Mr Lang.

He admits there have been difficulties converting schoolchildren to basketball when, inevitably, their first desire is to kick a ball, but he is clearly winning the battle.

"I started out in football myself but I first became involved in basketball 30 years ago. It was such a difference from football, where every schoolkid thinks they can play the game when they come to you and are not willing to be taught anything," he explains.

"With basketball, we were starting with something new and the children had to learn.

"It was so refreshing. It was an up-tempo game with a lot of skill which had the benefit that it was indoors and games could not be put off due to bad weather.

"Now, there is a lot of glamour in he game with the television coverage and children can see the big American stars. But I don't feel the National Basketball Association in America is the real McCoy and kids can pick up bad habits from it."

What Mr Lang and his fellow coaches achieved in the Paisley area was to set up four community teams, each with four teams (two for boys and two for girls). The names of the teams - Paisley Pistons, Houston Hornets, Erskine Eagles and Wood Farm Warriors - reflect the American influence and they play at Under-13 (rookie) and Under-14 (sophomore) level.

The teams play against each other at Linwood Sports Centre every Friday and St Mirren's senior men's team has been known to play Scottish League matches afterwards (Mr Lang is also head coach of St Mirren).

"It is a real family environment and there can be as many as 500 in the sports centre involved in the under-age games, both playing and watching. It means the senior team has a captive audience," says Mr Lang.

"It gives us a good fan base and we are trying to create the family club as they do in Europe, with the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich."

The basketball club has a strong link with St Mirren Football Club although Mr Lang admits, rather mischievously, that the intention is to steer youngsters towards basketball if possible.

A pathway has been set in place which enables young players to move on through the four community teams to play with the St Mirren club at cadet and junior level and then on to the senior team.

There is also a rule that states that all young players must take part in refereeing or other officiating duties at games.

"Many clubs go under, not because of a lack of players but because of a lack of officials or administrative staff," Mr Lang points out. "We make sure this doesn't happen and every youngster has to go on to do some officiating. It gives them a healthy respect for referees, as they understand how difficult it is, and it makes them less inclined to speak back to officials.

"We also encourage young players to go on and do coaching qualifications, so that the whole thing is self-perpetuating and the future of the club is assured.

"At present, there are nine international players at the St Mirren club at different age-groups and 16 in national development squads."

Mr Lang achieved another ambition a couple of years ago, when Gryffe High won national schools cups at Under-13, Under-14 and Under-15 level. He had never won a national cup in 28 years of trying, then suddenly three titles came along in the one year.

The Paisley area now looks set to go from strength to strength in Scottish basketball, given the solid foundations that have been carefully put in place.

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