Head Coach BBL Coach of the Year 2008, 2019
London Lions Head Coach Vince Macaulay on the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic
London Lions are thriving, but the 2020/21 BBL season isn’t without its differences.
Due to the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak, the British Basketball League agreed on a decision to postpone the remainder of the 2019/20 season last March.
Following the implementation of a Government rescue package of up to £4 million for British basketball, to address the impact of the absence of spectators as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (most of which is targeted at the BBL and WBBL), the 2020/21 season officially resumed in November, with opening rounds of the BBL Cup competition having begun in October. But due to the effects of the ongoing pandemic, a number of strict new measures have been put in place.
“I want to say it’s had a life changing impact on the sport in this country, on many fronts. How we see sport but also how all of us in basketball see our relationship with the fans and the community at large,” said London Lions Head Coach Vince Macaulay in a recent chat with The London Economic.
Currently top of the British Basketball League Championship, the London Lions have had an impressive start to the season, also competing in the FIBA Europe Cup. On those trips to Europe, the team have experienced social distancing on the bench, constant sanitising, and wearing masks, as well as adhering to Government guidelines over the UK’s regional tier systems introduced to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Despite these precautions, the volatile nature of the virus does continue to impact games.
Due to a number of Manchester Giants players being forced to self-isolate, the team were recently unable to fulfil their fixture against London Lions, giving the Lions an automatic bye to the Final. While the postponement of games is far from ideal, it’s not exactly surprising.
“I don’t think [self-isolating] is a big concern, and I don’t think it should be a big concern with any club, because once we all took the decision to try to play through the pandemic I think it comes along side it,” says Macaulay. “I mean, nobody can pretend they didn’t know there was a pandemic. I know we can pretend we didn’t know there were going to be occasions when we knew we were going to have to self-isolate, and the management of practice and games was going to change completely, and I think that we’ve all been through it.”
He continues: “I understand the value of being able to step on the floor and having the ability to play. I think, Danny Byrne (Manchester Giants Head Coach) has done a tremendous job over the years keeping that club going, and now having an opportunity with some good quality players to have an impact on the league table and stuff like that. They were looking forward to that match as we were but it’s going to happen again. I hope it doesn’t happen to us before the final, or anybody else, but it’s going to happen again. I think you can see what’s going on with Tottenham and Fulham and Aston Villa, and so on in the Premier League. It’s going to happen, so you just have understand that’s the new normal until this pandemic has gone.”
In a hope to protect staff and players, the entire London Lions organisation is continuing to bring the latest education to the top of the pile, as well as keeping up-to-date on the latest advice. A training app is also used to monitor potential symptoms, with individuals able to input details such as temperatures on an hourly basis. Venues also have their own protocols tied into risk assessments: which bathrooms can be used, no showers after practice, focus on hand sanitising, etc. Players are also encouraged to avoid public transport at all costs, which Vince Macaulay acknowledges is difficult in London. “Playing basketball is the smallest part of what we’ve been doing this year.”
Across the board, the change that’s perhaps most noticeable for clubs, players, and supporters is the lack of fans in the arenas.
“Personally I struggle with that,” says Macaulay. “I’m struggling having to stay at home all the time, and I’m fortunate that I can go to work to practice and go to work to games but being stuck at home is, and I’m sure everyone is experiencing that, it’s very difficult and you really need to stay on top of you mental health. And I felt that us playing was going to be really positive for the fans to be able to see that all, but it gutting that they cant be with us. I mean, we’ve had a good start to the season, we’ve got through to a semi-final, then a final, and we’re beating teams and we cant share it with the long term and short term fans that we have.”
With fans absent, the BBL and London Lions are putting measures in place to keep the games accessible to fans, including additional social media content and engagement, while games are televised via Sky Sports, with a BBL Player platform also showcasing all games, similar to the NBA’s League Pass.
“If we said to ourselves couple of years ago that every game in the league was going to be available for you to watch no one would believe it but that is indeed what is actually happening or trying to be happening. You can watch your own team’s game you can watch the team your team is going to be playing next week, watch their games. I mean trying to put that product out there to whatever level we can. Currently I know there is room for improvement and I know people are working very hard to improve that, I think that’s what the clubs and the BBL are doing to make that completely accessible to fans”.
While the present poses numerous difficulties, Vince Macaulay looks to the future of British basketball with optimism. While the game continues to grow (also thanks to the rising popularity of the NBA in the UK), the grassroots game is producing more and more exciting young players, and being away from the fans has brought more value to London Lion’s place in the community and that growing bond between fans and the club.
“I’m not meeting with our fans, I’m not seeing them on a game-by-game basis. I feel even more strongly associated to them because we are both missing each other if you like. So I think that stuff, plus some of the investment that’s coming into the game and into the clubs, is going to show a real upturn in British basketball.
“Take the pandemic away for half a second and what clubs have been doing in terms of organising their own venues, the quality of play that we’ve been bringing to the country; all of that shows you a strong stride forward by the game in this country.
“I’ve said this right from the beginning that one of the impacts of the pandemic is basically that it has brought an opportunity for us as basketball to reshuffle the pack of where we are in the pecking order of sport in this country. I’m not suggesting we jump over Premier League football, but when we come out of the pandemic the sports that have continued to play, and the clubs that have continued to grow and develop a lot will rapidly rise to the top. And I think we have a real opportunity as a sport in this country, with more and more British players playing at home and a better quality of foreign players coming in to join us to rise up above the position we were going in to the pandemic.”
The London Lions continue their 2020-21 BBL Championship campaign at home to the Plymouth Raiders. Watch the action from the Copper Box Arena live from 7pm Friday on Sky Sports Arena.
By Cameron Hogwood
Life at the top comes with pressure, and London Lions coach Vince Macaulay has braced his team for a season in the firing line as their BBL rivals look to dethrone the most recent league champions.
The Lions edged out Leicester to clinch the 2018-19 title a year after finishing runners-up to the Riders, before sitting in second with a game in-hand on the first-placed Glasgow Rocks as the 2019-20 campaign was brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.
Macaulay's side host the Plymouth Raiders at the Copper Box Arena on Friday night as they go in search of their first win having opened their Championship campaign with an 88-79 defeat to the Newcastle Eagles last Thursday.
The Raiders enter on the back of a 69-60 win over the Worcester Wolves and Sunday's 77-76 victory over the Eagles, across which Ashley Hamilton led the team with a combined 39 points.
"We're in a situation where we are moving into a different realm of expectation," said Macauley.
"The London Lions are the league champions, Justin Robinson is the MVP, I'm the Coach of the Year, so we're right there at the top to be shot at.
"Every game we play is going to be Game 7 in the NBA Finals so that's a challenge for me to get the players to understand that you've got to be up for the game wherever you are."
Macaulay has been a front-seat witness to both the BBL's development and strains for over 30 years, having spent time as a player before acquiring the then-Hemel Royals in the 90s and later playing a leading role in relocating the franchise to Watford, Milton Keynes and finally London in August 2012.
Player turnover has been a familiar factor in that time, however, the Lions owner believes the league is in a promising place in regards to homegrown talent returning to compete in the UK, which, in turn, is aiding the on-court standards.
"Coaching in the BBL is a big challenge, this league is far better than people think," he added. "Every team has upped their game this season, in terms of the level of play in the league right now it's fairly sensational. This is a really underrated league right now.
"The British Basketball League right now is flying. I've been around a long time in the BBL coming up in the league with the London Docklands back in 1989, there have been a lot of changes over the past 15 to 20 years.
"I think possibly the biggest change has been the return of British players to play at home, starting with Justin Robinson who not only came back to play from Greece, a real high-profile league, but he came into the BBL and was successful in the BBL as a two-time MVP.
"Being able to bring Justin Robinson back home to play in the prime of his career is a huge achievement for us."
Robinson is the reigning back-to-back league MVP having averaged 19.2 points and 4.9 assists per game in the 2018-19 Championship following 17.8 points and 5.6 assists in 2017-18.
He remains an integral part of Macaulay's set-up after a busy summer of new arrivals in the wake of 2019-20 top scorer Ovie Soko's move to France.
The Lions signed a league-high 15 players in the offseason, including former NBA pair DeAndre Liggins and Byron Mullens, and Kevin Ware, who spent time at both Louisville and Georgia State in college.
"Recruiting players is probably 80 per cent of the battle, getting the right player that you want to fit the system you want to play," explained Macaulay.
"I think DeAndre Liggins is magnetic to watch. He just plays basketball the right way. If the opportunities are there for him to score, he'll take them. If the opportunities are there to assist a team-mate he'll do that, he is averaging a ton of assists and a ton of rebounds.
"Kevin Ware is speed on legs, so quick. He's an exciting guy for the fans to watch, finishes at the rim, shoots from long range and assists his teammates."
An influx of fresh faces has consequently put the onus on the likes of Robinson to introduce his new team-mates to the Lions way of doing things.
"The 18/19 team that we had here was sensational in the connection they had with each other, and it was a joy to coach," said Macaulay. "When you bring in a lot of new players and a lot of higher expectations like we have now, it's a bigger challenge.
"So it's about my guys who are already with me, like Justin, like Andre Lockhart, like Joe Ikhinmwin, the London players to help us as a coaching staff to impose London upon our new arrivals and if they can care for London and represent London then good things happen."
Read the full story at https://www.skysports.com/nba/news/36226/12156714/london-lions-coach-vince-macaulay-on-the-underrated-bbl-and-high-expectations