Big shorts and slam dunks in Moscow for hoops talent
A talented team of basketball students are set to mix studies with slam dunks next term as they tour Eastern Europe competing against some of the best players in the world.
The team from the Institute of Basketball Excellence at the Harefield Academy in Uxbridge, Middlesex, will be the only representatives from Western Europe to compete in a 32-team student league sponsored by a Russian banking giant.
Between October and February the pupils, aged 13 to 19, will play against opponents in venues including Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg. Teachers will travel with the pupils to make sure they do not fall behind in their studies, with lessons to take place on planes and in hotels.
Coach Jack Majewski said it was a "tremendous educational opportunity" for the players. "Around 90 per cent of our students are inner-city London kids. Travel is not high on their agenda and many will never even leave their own borough in their life," he said.
"The average kid from Hackney or Croydon is never going to see St Petersburg. Here they will get to experience foreign travel, culture and sport at the same time."
The Institute of Basketball Excellence was set up two years ago as a joint venture between Harefield Academy and London United basketball team. It has grown from seven male students in the first year to 50 male and female players last year.
It already fields teams in a number of competitive leagues in the UK. The under-18 team currently plays in the national England Basketball League men's division two, and is the only academy team to regularly compete against adult players.
"I would like to think we are one of the true sports academies. We look at sport as a vehicle to turn people's lives around," said Pat Cottis, Harefield Academy's executive director. "Our job is to remove as many obstacles as possible so those young people can become athletes."
Harefield and London United also organise Future Stars, a programme that offers training and education for young athletes performing at the highest level and includes international tournaments and coaching clinics.
It was at one of these events that the directors of the Russian-based VTB United League saw Harefield's players in action and invited them to join their new student league. The academy raised the money to compete through sponsorship.
"It's going to be unbelievably complicated logistically, but we can't pass on this offer," said Mr Majewski. "Travelling alone will cost in the region of #163;25,000, but if we are truthful to our philosophy of preparing young athletes for professional life they need to play in the strongest possible position."
"You cannot expect elite performance from your students unless you expose them to elite performance," Ms Cottis added.
Harefield has serious ambitions for its basketball teams. It has already set up an extended diploma to allow players to study for an extra year, and is also planning a foundation degree to create a natural progression for athletes.
Mr Majewski hopes the team can play in the main VTB United League within two years. "We want to be one of the best basketball programmes in Europe, with leavers ready to join professional teams either here or abroad. The Olympics did a pretty good job of raising the profile of basketball in this country. I think it's a sleeping giant."
Making the leap
Harefield Academy's students will make six trips to Eastern Europe over the coming months, to Moscow, St Petersburg and Kaliningrad in Russia, Vilnius in Lithuania, Kiev in Ukraine, and Poland.
They will also host the teams from these cities when they travel to London. Matches are played over a weekend, with each team playing two matches on each occasion. The top teams progress to the play-off stages.
These matches are in addition to regular season games and academic study.