NBA star Luol Deng inspires North Devon pair to return to basketball
FROM top to bottom, Luol Deng's influence on British basketball knows no limits.
The Chicago Bulls forward was described last week as "probably the biggest sports star in the world and Barack Obama's favourite sportsman at the moment".
Stephen Mosley MP's elevation of Deng above Lionel Messi, Novak Djokovic and Rory McIlroy may be questionable but his name was being used as a stick with which to beat UK Sport into reversing its decision to drop funding for British basketball up to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Rallying to the cause, Deng, the first Briton to play in the NBA's annual All-Star Game, wrote to David Cameron pleading for prime ministerial backing and, by the end of the week, the counter-offensive had worked. Funding was restored.
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Simultaneously, Deng has played his part in boosting basketball here in North Devon.
Thanks to his appearance on television in a Great Britain vest, two former players from Barnstaple have returned to the sport after a seven-year absence.
Dave Richardson and Nelson Birch tuned in last July as the Team GB men's squad prepared for London 2012 with an Olympic warm-up match against the United States in Manchester.
It had been several years since Richardson and Birch had been in touch, having played together in their youth for Barnstaple under-19s and under-21s in the National League.
"We had totally lost contact and I found Dave on Facebook," said Birch. "I had only just gone on it and I was searching for friends.
"We started talking and we were on it when the Olympic warm-up game was on.
"I played against Luol Deng in England Schoolboy trials and Dave and I were laughing and joking about how he had gone on and done this and we were stuck in Devon.
"From that, we both said we would like to get back into it and we egged each other on."
Words turned to action and now they are back playing together again, appearing for North Devon in the Exeter and District Basketball Association league second division.
The pair joined in time for the start of the season and it was not easy at first.
North Devon, runners-up last term, lost seven of their opening eight league games and were eliminated from the main knockout tournament.
But a 65-36 victory over Devon Peelers at South Molton Community College in their latest league game brought North Devon their fourth win in succession, two in the league and two in the Plate to reach the final.
For a club which has battled to maintain a squad of strong players, the return to the game of Richardson and Birch – hot on the heels of Matt Patey last season – has been a boost.
Midweek away matches that require travel as far as Weymouth, Exmouth and Torbay can stretch resources in an amateur club in which players must fit basketball around their employment and family commitments.
Geoff Dobbs, the coach, said: "On occasions we have gone away without anywhere near a full bench and having those two extra bodies has given us a lot more scope.
"Both of them are extremely keen and have been up for most of the matches when we have asked them to go along, so it has worked well.
"Perhaps Dave has come back a little bit quicker than Nelson but both have been a good addition to the squad. It gives us more flexibility and an ability to ring the changes.
"The other week (in the 107-40 win over Weymouth Raiders) I was able to substitute in one go the five who were on court with the five who were sitting on the bench. I have not had that luxury for many a year.
"We had a poor start to the season, I don't know why. We'd had a good season last season and we were flat at the beginning of this season.
"It just needed a couple of wins to give us confidence because the Peelers gave us a good hiding the last time we played them in the league (64-47 on December 6) but then we beat them in the Plate semi-finals (55-34 on January 13).
Richardson, a community care worker for Devon County Council, living in Northam, gave up the game because of injury but not before compiling a CV that included playing National League junior basketball for Barnstaple and the University of Wales.
"Before that I was in high school in America for a year – Rock Bridge High, Missouri – as an exchange student," he said.
"Basketball is their No 1 sport, very well organised, like football is here."
Big crowds, too. He remembers playing in front of 1,000 or so spectators, almost 1,000 times as many as watched North Devon against Devon Peelers.
For the last seven years, Richardson has played football for Putford in the North Devon League.
Of his return to basketball, he said: "Nelson and I used to play for South West of England and we had England trials, so we played at quite a high level.
"When we were chatting we realised we both missed it, so we just thought we would come back and see if we could get a game with these guys."
Birch, from Yelland, who works in road construction, had dropped basketball when he began dating a girl in Taunton and could not find the time to play. Later he took up golf and pub games.
Now he is back on court, how does it feel? "Brilliant," he said. "Like old times. I haven't felt this fit in years."
Led by good scoring from Rob Wrey, North Devon edged the first quarter against Peelers 18-15.
Wrey continued to find the mark in the second quarter, as did Barry Wright, and the home team were 32-19 up at half time.
Four quick baskets from Wright in the third quarter extended North Devon's lead to 19 points and, with Craig Jones, Adam Gregory and Patey each finding the target, the gap was out to 24 points (49-25) at the three-quarters mark.
Four more from Wright in the last quarter ensured the punishment fitted the crime for the police team.
They had arrived under strength and North Devon took full advantage with a 29-point winning margin.
Although Richardson, mainly at point guard, and Birch, in a versatile role, contributed only three baskets between them, they played their part.
"They gave us energy as much as anything," said Dobbs.
It may be a long way down from the NBA but, thanks in part to Luol Deng, Richardson and Birch are glad to be back.