American Hoop Dreams

The American Dream, to make it in the U.S.A, is something people have been doing for centuries. Now, a handful of British teenagers are heading across the Atlantic to do the same with their very own basketball aspirations. 

Basketball – now the second most played team sport among teenagers and young adults in the U.K – is on the rise in Britain so it’s not surprising that there are 117 players in America’s top 3 divisions of college basketball.

Towering above most, standing at a breezy 6 ft 11’, Josh Ogundele is one of these talented Brits looking to make a mark in America. The 20-year-old hails from Dagenham and Redbridge and is now playing at NCAA division 1 team University of Iowa – a world away from his hometown.

Despite his gigantic 285 lb build Ogundele speaks softly and is described by the Press officer of his team as a “very nice boy.” Ogundele, who plays as a centre, was recruited while playing for Barking Abbey. “I played against an American team that came over. I played well, I had 21 or 23 points against them and then after the game they spoke to my coach and told him ‘we want him to come over’. I decided to go six months later.”

At just 16, Ogundele made his way over to the states, a brave move to a new world. “I did find it hard to adjust. My first two weeks I was homesick, the education system is kind of different and the culture is very different.”

Despite Ogundele’s initial struggle, with his competitive nature – a must for any elite athlete – he earnt the respect of his doubtful American teammates. “They would think that just because I was from England, where basketball is not as big as football, that this guy is probably not that good. But once I started playing, I began to earn their trust and respect. It went uphill from there.”

Ogundele’s first game for his new school is on Wednesday, he is visibly excited and happy to get going. “We have a really good team; we are ranked number 5 in the country. I want to get better, no matter what happens I just need to get better every day and I want to win a championship with my team.”

In recent times, with the development of elite basketball academies here in the UK, American and Canadian colleges have been taking in some of the most talented this country has to offer. These basketball academies take in 16-year olds for two to three years whilst they study alongside their rigorous training schedule.

One of these elite academies is the Canterbury academy in Kent, run by Canadian Jesse Sazant – a coach with deep history in British basketball who has seen a number of his best players head over to pursue their American dreams.

Sazant talks fondly of his players who he has watched make the leap. “Every one of these kids has had an absolutely unbelievable life experience, some good – some bad. They have all learnt from it, it’s opened up career doors for them. For some in basketball, for some outside of basketball.” By gaining a scholarship to a U.S or Canadian college, many players are gaining an official education they might not have had if it were not for basketball.

Sazant is proud of his work with the British basketball academies, he was an instrumental part in the creation of them. “There was never something like that previously. I think what we do from 16-19 with these leading academies makes a real difference in developing players, helping them increase their chances of heading over there.”

Women’s basketball has also been thriving in the UK and the results can be seen with 53 players in the top three divisions of US college basketball.

Loren Christie, 19, is a GB International player and made the move to the University of Buffalo last year. Christie, like Ogundele, had to fight for her respect upon landing in America. “Most Americans felt kind of threatened, the coaches have gone to a different country to recruit so there is something new that makes you different to everyone in America.”

Christie also played at Barking Abbey whilst still in the U.K and feels herself and other players of the same age group started a trend. “I know a lot of players that are over here. I think my age group was the bridge, it wasn’t really a normality it was a high hope to try and get out there. Our generation made it a normality and now it’s kind of just the way for kids to go.”

As Christie speaks to me, she is on a 7-hour bus journey to play a game. The return journey will be even longer. “10 hours!” she exclaims wearily.

Although she doesn’t mind too much, what Christie is more concerned about is her academic work. “We get given a lot a lot of work, like a lot. We have academic advisers that that get onto us about it. There is stress because you have to keep eligible. If you are not doing your work you are being shouted at on the court as well for not doing it.”

Despite her strenuous bus journey and looming deadlines, Christie, very much like Ogundele, has an extremely focused, determined tone and is ready for the season ahead, which, for both Ogundele and Christie, tips off this week.

With the number of Brits heading across the pond it’s not surprising that Christie is facing one next week – her competitive side rears its ugly head once again. “It’s interesting, it is a pride thing, we both come from the same place and we want to see who’s better, we have both been out here for a year and we are about to see who has really been doing their work.” Only time will tell…

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