SOUTH LONDON – It’s about 5:50pm on a Saturday, and I get a text from the Plymouth Raiders’ starting point guard, Josh Wilcher.
“Stuck in traffic mate. London traffic is the worst.”
The team has been on a bus since midday – a gruelling 350km bus ride from Plymouth to south London – specifically Crystal Palace or “The Palace” as it’s affectionately known. The Palace, built in the 1960s, is a concrete sanctuary to sports.
As I enter, I’m struck by the smell of chlorine from the pool – but instinctively follow the distant sound of a bouncing ball.
Nestled below the main concourse is a court, with rows of plastic chairs lined up along the baseline with laminated A4 pieces of paper that read “VIP” upon them. On closer inspection, the 3-point line is peeling on the nearest baseline corner. A series of other lines have been crossed out with a pseudo hardwood tape. About a dozen kids – and members of the London Royals leisurely put up shots.
It’s a little over an hour until tip off in the British Basketball League, and the opposition Raiders are nowhere to be seen.
Fans started to arrive, and the court begins to capture the hum of professional sports. The 1,000-person arena is filing up; kids make their way to their seats wearing Royal crowns that look like hats from a Burger King party.
I was beginning to worry – London traffic is bad – but before too long, the Plymouth Raiders emerge from the bowels of the sports centre. Among them is Josh Wilcher, unmissable with his spikey, ginger hair.
“Brutal trip in,” I say as we shake hands.
“Yeah,” he says with a smile, “By this time tomorrow we’ll have played two games.”
There’s no time to chat. Josh begins stretching before joining the team in a pre-game warm-up. 15 minutes before tip-off, the London Royal announcer comes over the sound system.
“This is not tennis…” the hype-man explains in a not-surprising British accent, “This is not golf… you can be as loud as you can!”
Tentative cheers, and a smattering of applause followed.
Welcome to the world of British basketball.
On this particular Saturday night, the Raiders fly out of the gates. The game is played with speed, athleticism and a high-volume of 3-point attempts.
The London Royals are undefeated at home and the Raiders shock them, blowing the cobwebs off the long bus ride and quickly and capitalising on early opportunities both inside and from beyond the arc.
But the opposing Royals are a roster of big, physical basketballers, including numerous former and current Team Great Britain players. Slowly, they work their way into the game. And, in the third, they push away.
On the court, Josh plays like a wily vet – and in the second half, he comes into his own. Down double-digits, he nails a three in front of the Royals’ bench and follows it up with a left-hand floater to bring the lead down to nine.
His mouthguard – with a distinctive mark in the middle – a remnant of a lost tooth from an elbow to the mouth in a basketball game from when he was 14 – reflects his tenacity on the court.
The game oscillates between electrifying, up-tempo basketball and unchoreographed chaos, when it deteriorates into a series of turnovers and out of control sequences of guys overdoing it.
It’s physical. Guys fight for rebounds. The fouls are hard, and the emotions run high, more than once.
By this stage, the small but chipper crowd has limbered up. A few beers and some wild turnovers later, they start to get into things. When the Royals hit a free throw – they stand up and immediately sit down – like a bad Mexican wave.
The Raiders make a run and give the home team and its supporters a scare, but ultimately the visitors go down 102-93.
Minutes later, the Raiders are on the floor cooling down, preparing for the arduous bus ride home.
One thing’s for sure – they aren’t about to hang around. I grab coach Paul James before he heads to the car park to get his thoughts on his Australian point guard.
“Josh is an amazing player,” coach James shares. “Just a very, very smart point guard.
“He makes everyone around him better. You know he can obviously score himself and he’s having a great scoring season this year as well as dishing the ball out as he does but a real solid point guard and just very intelligent player.”
Indeed, Wilcher is experiencing a career year, averaging 16.9 points and more than two 3-point makes per game on 37% from deep. He’s also fourth in the league in assists at 6.9 per game, and just on the outside of the top 10 in the league in scoring. To cap it off, he’s also well-entrenched in the top 10 for three-point makes per game and relentless at getting to the free throw line.
Ticket to London
Britain is an unusual place for a professional basketballer – particularly an Australian.
For Josh, it was a chance at redemption – and the product of some genetic fortuity.
The Melburnian tore his Achilles in the Australian winter of 2012, playing for Sandringham in the SEABL.
He was fresh off of his rookie campaign in the NBL as a development player for the Melbourne Tigers. Until that point, it looked like he would be returning to the Tigers for another year – the foundations of what would hopefully become a long NBL career – but playing defence one Sunday in July, he heard a “pop”.
“I lost everything that day for a year,” Josh says.
It was around the same time his British passport was approved. The son of an Englishman, Josh was eligible for a dual passport.
He missed the following NBL season, falling off the Tigers roster and into a funk.
“When I did my Achilles I really took a shot mentally,” he says. “Obviously, physically you know you’re out for so long and you can’t really do anything but mentally was the biggest thing.
“You go from being at the top, like you feel like you’re working towards something to no one really wanting you and you’ve really got nothing,” he recalls.
With the NBL door slamming shut no sooner than it had opened, Josh used his new UK ID to reset his career in the unlikeliest of places: Reading, England.
“When I got the opportunity to go over there, I was like, well these guys don’t know but I know I can make a name for myself and quite quickly in this league,” he says. “When I got there, I was really hungry. I wanted to get back into it because for a while there when I did my Achilles, I lost the love again. I didn’t want to play basketball. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Josh dominated in the English Basketball League (the second-tier league in Great Britain), averaging nearly 23 points per game and winning the league MVP for the Reading Rockets.
“I say a year but I wasn’t really myself for 14 to 16 months – just with the confidence, the pushing off that foot and back-pedaling and doing all those things that you used to do. So, I didn’t really feel myself until I got over to England and I got that confidence back.”
An unlikely hoops haven
British hoops is an unlikely but emergent basketball market.
While national funding for the sport has tanked in recent years following poor performances by Team Great Britain on the international stage, it remains one of the highest participation sports in the UK.
“Obviously, when you’re growing up in England — soccer and football as they call it you know is the majority sport and that’s what people want to play,” Josh admits.
“But once you get people in the doors, like selling tickets to come and watch a basketball game they tend to stay and they tend to love it.
“Over the past couple of years the attendance has been higher and the publicity of the league has been a lot greater – so it’s definitely going in the right direction,” he says.
A confluence of factors has resulted in the league’s renaissance. The BBL has worked to professionalise the league; teams are starting to build purpose-built basketball stadiums and a new TV deal with the BBC means at least one game is shown on free-to-air TV per week.
In many respects, the league has all the hallmarks of the NBL a decade ago.
Its proximity to the big leagues of Europe and the lure of an English-speaking environment has also helped reinvigorate the league.
“In terms of guys, English guys who are born and bred guys who have gone to play in Europe because the league wasn’t good enough – they seem to be coming back now,” Josh says. “It obviously grows the stature of it all. There’s more competitive teams now,” he adds.
“I think it’s heading in the right direction,” coach James says, who also has coached the English national team. “You look at more and more teams now are looking at building their own facility and we’re [Plymouth Raiders] looking to do the same as well”.
“I think the quality and the level of play is going up all the time and people are doing their homework now,” he said. “We’ve got some talented players within the league and every game you got to show up and play, otherwise you’re going to get beat.”
Players like Josh add to the growing professionalism of the league.
The BBL is expanding and has its eyes set on integrating further with Europe.
For the first time in a decade, a local team has taken the plunge with the back-to-back BBL champions, Leicester Riders qualifying for the FIBA Europe Cup. The team went 0-6 in competition this year – in what FIBA describes as a fourth-tier European competition – but they have restarted the race for British basketball to be successful on the continent.
Each time I spoke to Josh, he was either on a bus or gearing up for another lengthy road trip. It’s a brutal league; bus rides of 12 hours are not uncommon – particularly from far flung Plymouth.
A delicate balance of movies, books and magazines help pass the time. On his ride to the London Royals game, he had been binge-watching First and Last, a Netflix documentary series about prison in America to pass the time.
“Sometimes, it’s a bit of a grind,” Josh admits. “But if you had told me when I was 15 or 16 that I’d have a chance to play overseas and play all year round and make this a living, then I would’ve jumped at it then.”
“I feel like I’d do myself a disservice and to 16-year-old Josh a disservice if I just stopped.”
Winning makes life on the road easier.
“It’s hard when you’ve got your adrenaline going after the games to sort of settle down – especially after a loss you think about it a little too much then you should.
“You wake up and your body’s a bit sorer. Sometimes mentally you don’t feel like playing, so you’ve to find ways to get yourself up and ready and that’s a tough part of it.”
Despite the grind, the fatigue, he understand the clock is ticking too.
“I want to try and play as long as I can and milk my body as much as I can,” Josh says. “So I know that once this finishes, I know I’ve given everything and I’ve got as much out of myself as I possibly can.”
While Josh is contemplating rest and recovery for his game in 10 hours’ time, he’s also starting to turn his mind to the upcoming QBL season.
The Townsville Heat are vying for a three-peat when the season begins in just a couple of months.
“It’s hard because you jump back into 0% of the season,” he explains.
“You know, right now we probably have 10% of the season left and it’s like it feels like you’re gearing toward something… then you’ve got to start again, and you feel like you’re constantly chasing something.”
In front of us, volunteers begin tearing the makeshift hardwood tape off the floor as kids take selfies with players and run around the court.
Over the loudspeaker, the announcer says, “Thanks to the Raiders for a great game. Have a safe journey home.”
And with that, the stadium lights switch off and we head towards the exit.
It’s a little before 10pm – the Raiders have been in London for less than four hours. They’ll pull into Plymouth just after 2am the following morning, and play again 10 hours later.
Not that it matters to Josh.
“Now I’m getting older, all I want to do is win. I’ll win anything,” he says. “I’ll win a weekend competition; I’ll win a season.
“Just let me be a winner, and that’s all that matters.”