Hoop dreams

The bas­ket­ball coach trans­form­ing trou­bled lives

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Jim White

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

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