The basketball coach transforming troubled lives
It is an unlikely setting for a minor educational miracle. The gym at Raines Foundation School in Bethnal Green in London’s East End looks largely as you might expect a school gym to look – blank walls, a couple of benches pushed to one side, a basketball hoop at each end. But it is here in these unprepossessing surroundings that everything changed for a group of youngsters. It was here a bunch of wayward, ill-disciplined, frankly close to lawless teenagers became some of the finest junior sportsmen in the country. It was here that basketball changed their lives.
As miracles go, however, this was not an overnight transformation. It began four years ago when Laurent Irish, the former centre for the London Lions basketball team, working as a coach for the educational sports charity Greenhouse, was embedded at Raines Foundation. A small inner city secondary, this is a school that draws its pupils almost exclusively from areas of deprivation, where more than 70 per cent are entitled to free school meals. One day, in the spring of 2013, Irish was approached by the head teacher. A new intake of children was arriving that September and the reports from their primary schools were not encouraging.
“Pretty much his exact words to me were, ‘These kids are going to be a problem’,” Irish recalls, as he stands at the side of the gym. “I was asked, ‘Can you have a look at them?’”
It was a group of a dozen young boys who, even before they had reached the age of 11 had already been identified as serial troublemakers. Routinely disruptive, increasingly absent, as they were due to arrive together as a cohort, the fear was they could create havoc. These were boys poised on the edge of exclusion. Irish went to visit them in their primary schools and asked them a simple question. Had any of them ever played basketball? The answer was a unanimous “No”. Would they like to play basketball? The answer involved a lot of teeth sucking. This was not going to be an easy task.
Four years later, the same group of boys are practising their skills in the gym. Every morning, they are in here from 7.30am, playing for 90 minutes before lessons begin. They are in the gym at break time, during the lunch hour and then again after school for another 90-minute session. There is not a day in their lives they are not chucking a basketball around for at least three hours.
And all that practice is evident. As they swoop and dash, popping the ball with ease into the net time after time, it is astonishing how good they are at the game, how adept, how skilful, how committed. Indeed, in March, this group of former basketball ingenues reached the under-14 national schools final, only losing by a couple of points to a school three times as big as theirs.
“When we started, I never thought we’d get that far,” says Ashley, one of the team for the final, held in the Leicester Arena in front of a sizeable crowd of teachers and school-mates. “Thing is, they weren’t much better than us, but maybe they wanted it more. It made us realise we could do it, made us come back even more determined.” Team-mate Daniel adds: “It gives us something to fight for. We’re going to win it this year. We’re not going to stop till we do.”
But there is something else about this team beyond their basketball skill. As they have proved themselves to be junior masters of the swish, the rebound and the turnover, so their academic performance has improved beyond all expectation. Now in their GCSE year, all of this bunch, who were close to being written off, are expected to end up with a host of qualifications. “I was badly behaved, yeah,” admits Daniel of his pre-basketball days. “Even at primary, I was bunking off and that. Now, we’re all in school every morning at 7.30. I can’t wait to get in here. My mum can’t believe it. She’s like, ‘You want to go to school?’”
No longer featuring on the weekly list put together by the head teacher of those who have transgressed, no longer provoking teachers to press the alarm button under their desks by which they summon assistance, no longer disruptive in any way, they have become something nobody expected, given their primary-school record – model pupils.
“Younger kids look up to them, want to be like them” says Emma Omo-Bare, the school’s head of behaviour and child protection. “The trickle-down through the school has been remarkable.”
And all because of basketball.
“A lot of the pupils come to us, like these lads did, with social and emotional needs,” says Raines Foundation head teacher Rob Hullett. “In truth, they come to us neglected. Some of them have very chaotic backgrounds. What we’ve found basketball provides for them is structure, discipline, commitment, team work. These are vital life skills you can see they are using in every other part of their school life.”
Irish is not remotely surprised by what has happened at the school. After all, it is what happened to him.
“Basketball saved my life, 100 per cent,” he says. “I come from exactly the same place. I messed about in primary school. I was just like them.”
But after he discovered he was rather good at the game, he won a scholarship to a university in Florida and became a professional. Now he is passing on his experience and believes basketball offers a unique opportunity.
“Listen, I think all sports can teach positive life lessons,” he says. “But look around this place, there’s no field here, the kids can’t play football or rugby or cricket. Basketball started in inner city areas – you don’t need much space, just a patch of concrete. You can play it anywhere.”
There is something else about it too. For the trendy, east London youth, it has real fashionable allure.
“No doubt part of the attraction is the shoes, the gear, the lifestyle,” adds Irish. “The music they relate to – grime, hip hop – it all goes with basketball. It’s the urban sport.”
Talking to the team in their smart trainers and long, baggy shorts is to be immediately impressed. These are articulate, polite, chatty young men. Nothing like the unruly, gangster stereotype of the inner-city teenager or the assumption carried in their primary school reports.
Something else they all share is a realisation that the only route to success is hard work, an attitude they apply to maths, English and science as much as to basketball. The evidence suggests that comes from the way the school adopted an elite approach to sport.
“Of course there is value in low-key engagement,” says John Herriman, the chief executive of the Greenhouse charity that employs Laurent Irish. “But we’ve done research on this and discovered the effect increases as the intensity goes up. If you have learned that you get better at basketball through practice, the more you see the visible returns from commitment and effort, that feeds into everything. Confidence improves, which is taken into the classroom. In everything you do, you don’t give up, you work harder.”
For the lads at Raines, that commitment is there in every block, every tackle, every dribble that Irish puts them through.
“If we’re going to win the national champs this year, there’s only one way we’re going to do it,” says Ashley after putting away an outrageously long basket attempt. “We’re just going to have to work harder than anyone else.”
‘We’ve found it provides vital life skills, which you see them using in every other part of their time at school’
Courting victory: Laurent Irish, basketball coach at Raines Foundation School in London’s East End, with the youngsters he has taken from wayward beginnings to the national final