- National Teams
We got a chance to sit down and talk to GB U20 assistant and Aalborg Viking Head Coach, James Vear, about his career to date. Vear is another of the UK’s rising coaching talents and is currently in the midst of his first season in Denmark with Aalborg, where he has already helped set a club record for wins. He spoke everything, from how he first started playing, to GB U20s last summer and his experiences so far. Check it out (questions in bold, answers in regular):
Can you start by giving us a rundown of your playing/coaching career to date; where did you start playing, all the way through to where you are at now?
I started playing as early as 5 I think, me and my two brothers were introduced to the game by my Dad and since then basketball has been a huge part of my family’s life.
I played for my local team in Hampton, Middlesex with my Dad coaching until I was about 13, then I went and joined the Chessington Wildcats who were coached by Jack Majewski. We had a great team back then with players like Ryan Cadogan, Philip Perre and Chris Jeremiah to name a few.
I then travelled to the states and played at a High School in Texas called WB Ray High School, I came home after and looked at playing in the BBL but the game was so different compared to what I had got used to in the States so actually quit playing and started coaching.
I started my coaching career coaching the Sevenoaks Suns boys teams. I was lucky that there were some great coaches there at the time; I started with Tim Lewis, Radmila Turner and Len Busch. I coached that program for nearly 4 years and had some very successful seasons.
I then moved to the Medway Crusaders where I was the associate head coach at their academy with Jesse Sazant, I was also the assistant for the Men’s Division 2 team. In my first season I was promoted to Head Coach and coached that team for 3 seasons. We were crowned Division 2 playoff champions in 2010 and promoted to Division 1 in the time I was there.
I then needed a new challenge so went and coached as an assistant to John Campbell one of Canada’s best coaches at Dalhousie University, Halfiax. I had a great year there and learnt a huge amount from John. That same year I was asked to be the GB U20s assistant coach, we had a great summer gaining promotion to Div A. That same summer I was also offered a pro contract to coach the Aalborg Vikings team who play in ProA in Denmark and that’s where I am today.
What made you decide to coach? When did the switch happen?
I actually stumbled into coaching really, I had stopped playing when I came back from High School and Tim Lewis had asked if I wanted to come and help with the boys program at Sevenoaks. I turned up one evening expecting just to help with practice and Tim said over to you and let me take practice, so I actually have him to thank for getting me involved and throwing me in at the deep end, haha. From that first session I knew this was what I wanted to do, I have loved coaching ever since.
You have a basketball family, can you talk a little about that (who/what do they do) and what influence that had on you growing up?
My family are basketball mad; basketball has been a major part of all our lives since I can remember. Me and my two brothers all have our Dad to thank for putting a basketball in our hands when we were younger and coaching us in those early years.
Both my two brothers are heavily involved in basketball and all of us are lucky enough that basketball for us is our full time jobs. Stephen was a great player, he played for me at Medway for two seasons and had a very distinguished career in England, he is the head of the Luol Deng Foundation in England, he is also heavily involved with basketball all over London. He has now taken the plunge into coaching and is coaching the Brixton Topcats women’s team. My other brother, Mark, lives in San Antonio, Texas, he coaches full time at a basketball facility there and is also an AAU coach to one of the best U12 teams in Texas.
What or who would you say has had the biggest influence on your coaching style/philosophy and why?
I have had quite a few mentors that influenced my coaching style and philosophy. A big mentor to me is Don Showalter who is the USA U17 Head Coach, he has been a family friend for many years, is a great coach and an even better person. Just seeing what he has done in his career is a great inspiration to me, and is one of the best I have seen at managing players.
John Campbell at Dalhousie University has helped me mold my philosophy these past few years, going and being his assistant taught me a huge amount. He taught me a lot technically but also a lot on how mentally tough players need to be to be successful.
What is your proudest achievement to date?
I have a few. The GB U20s promotion was a huge achievement especially with a lot of people doubting that team, winning the Division 2 playoffs was big as well as it was Medway’s first piece of silverware. I also think the first year I took over as the head coach of Medway was a big year, I inherited the team when we were 0 and 7 and we went onto have a great year and make the playoffs when everyone thought we would definitely get relegated.
As you mentioned, you were with the GB U20s last summer, can you talk a little bit about that experience, how was it working under Doug Leichner?
It was an amazing experience, its always been an ambition of mine to coach my country so when Doug asked me to be an assistant I was very honoured. We had a great group of players, who from day 1 bought in to Doug’s philosophy and the style he wanted them to play with. I do not think I have been part of a team that showed so much heart, determination and will to win as that team.
A huge amount of credit must go to Doug as well, he put in system and a style of play that suited our team and allowed them to be successful. We also had a great staff on that U20 team, Mark Lloyd is the best team manager in the whole of Europe I am sure, Marc Steutel who came in late to the staff was invaluable especially with his scouting reports and our physio Mark Taylor made sure our guys physically were in the best shape they could be in.
We also had people like Ginge (Ross Norfolk) and Strength and Conditioning coach Andrew Langford who did a huge amount of work that no one actually got see in the build up before we went to the tournament.
The high was getting promotion, knowing after our semi final win we had got promotion was a great feeling. Losing the final was tough, we had beat Poland in the group stage and we didn’t play our best basketball in that final. That was the only game we lost all summer, I think we went 17 and 1.
And what did you think about the talent level of the team, in particular Devon van Oostrum?
I do not think we were the most talented U20 team that GB has ever produced and that’s not a knock against our guys but we were a great team. The players all bought into their roles and the team played for each other, that was a huge reason for our success.
I think we had a good blend of speed and athleticism, we weren’t the biggest team at the Europeans but all the teams struggled especially against our quickness.
Devon is a huge talent and an NBA caliber player, in the tournament he had some games where we willed us over the line to some wins.
We had big performances from different players all through that tournament, though, it seemed when teams would concentrate on Devon then Nick Lewis would step up, then if they looked at stopping him then Joe Hart would hit some big shots and so on. Every player on our roster contributed.
Will you be involved with the GB U20s again this summer?
I would love to be but with the funding announcement we will have to wait and see. I am in contact with Doug and Warwick and hope that we are still able to take a team to Greece, we have a great talent pool to pick from this year and it would be a huge shame if after all the team’s hard work last summer that we cannot take a team to the Europeans.
You have been involved with both men and women’s teams at points, what would you say the differences are from a managerial standpoint?
I don’t think there is that much of a difference, they are both similar. I was involved with the U18 girls team at a very early age and for me it was more of an opportunity to see how a national team worked. I had a great time working with the girls team but I was the Team Manager then so I was not involved much with the basketball side of things but it was still a good learning opportunity.
How would you describe that whole experience with Medway?
It was a great experience, I was lucky enough that Jesse Sazant gave me a chance to coach the Men’s team. I think I was only 27 when I took over the team and a lot of chairmen wouldn’t have given a young coach a chance at that level, especially when the team was 0 and 7 to start the year.
I got to coach my brother while I was there which was something I always wanted to do, I had a great core of players like Sam Betts, Damian Lyons, James Harris and JP Dimanja. I was lucky enough to keep that core group around the whole time I was there and add some great import players like OJ Reed who has gone onto great things since leaving Medway.
I love the club and will always think of them as my team for however long I coach.
Then you headed to Canada with Dalhousie, what was that like, especially in contrast to England?
Canada was a new experience for me as I had never been a assistant coach and I knew I wanted to learn as much as I could while I was there. I learnt a huge amount under John Campbell who is definitely one of Canada’s best coaches.
We had a very young team, but I loved working with the team everyday especially doing all of our individual workouts and I got to do a lot of the video analysis something I had not done a lot of back home.
Canadian basketball is also hugely underrated, their college system is very close in standard to the NCAA and they are producing some great players.
Canadian basketball is different to England, it is similar to America with the College and High School team set-up instead of it having the club set up. Canada Basketball has done a great job making Canada a very good Basketball country, Steve Nash is now running things there and with the youth players that are coming through they could be a big threat to the USA in the next 5 years.
How has your first year in Denmark been?
My first year has been good, the team have had a very difficult couple of seasons prior to me coming here. Last season they won 2 games the entire season, this year we have won 10 so far which is a club record and it looks like we will make the playoffs.
We are still a long way from where I want the team to be but I have a great group of players who have bought into my system and the culture change I am trying to incorporate throughout the club.
Now you’ve been involved with basketball abroad, what would you say it is that British basketball is getting it wrong?
I think that British basketball is heading in the right direction, I must say that first, we have made steps forward over the past couple of years and I have even had people here in Denmark comment on how well GB basketball has been doing at senior and youth level, but there is always room for improvement.
The BBL has some very well run professional teams, I do not think it helps the league when new teams come in and cant compete at the level, I have seen some crazy results with 60-70 point blo outs, which does not help the respectability of the league.
I have to say the level of coaching here is very high especially in our league, every team has a very accomplished coach with some very good resumes. There are only 5 million people in Denmark and they create some very good junior players and have some of their age group teams in Division A at European level and I think this is down to them having some very good coaches, an area I think we can always improve in Great Britain.
I personally am not a big fan of our coaching badge system, I have done all my levels and I do not think I learnt enough on them, I think they should be harder and in more depth. I got to see the Canadian version of our Level 1 badge and it was more detailed that our level 3 badge.
I do think, however, EB and GB are trying to change that and there are a lot more chances now for coaches to get better with clinics, RPC Camps and stuff.
Are there recurring themes with your British players that you see? What are their biggest weaknesses, and strengths?
I think British players have always been known for their toughness and athleticism, which is a huge strength to have. I think our weaknesses are our fundamentals, especially at the youth level, it’s an area that I think needs improvement.
I think we have a lot of players that get to 18-19 and we all say they are great athletes or they have great speed but they cannot shoot a jumpshot or they fundamentally are not quite there.
You look at some of the smaller European nations who have less resources and smaller talent pools than us that produce great youth players and a lot of that is due to the coaching they get at an early age.
What are your plans after Denmark?
My plans are to grow on what we have done this season. I am keen to bring in some new youth players next season, I want to ideally get some young talented Danish players and some British players as well. We have a great link with the University here, which means players can come here and study for free so hoping that can be a big selling point for the Club.
This year we have made the playoffs and next year I want to try and push up into the top half of the league. I have not thought too much about after Denmark as I want to concentrate on what I am doing here and trying to make this team as successful as I can.
I have had offers from other teams in Europe for next season but I want to build on things here in Aalborg; I really like the club and we have the best fans in Denmark.
It seems more and more British coaches are heading abroad, is that a conscious choice for you, or more out of necessity in that the opportunities just don’t exist in England?
I want to push myself professionally, I could have stayed in England and coached but I thought that this was the best opportunity for me professionally. I am a big believer in getting outside of your comfort zone something I speak a lot to my players about, I think coaches should try and do that as much as possible as well.
This was a new challenge for me and I always want to be challenged.
What do you think are the keys to being a good coach? What do you do to ensure you are always learning and improving?
Good question, I think a good coach gets the best out of his players and puts them in the best position to be successful, there are lots of other things as well, but that is short answer.
I am constantly trying to get better as a coach, you have to be constantly learning if you want to get better. The great thing about basketball coaching is you can always get better and always continue to learn more.
I watch a lot of basketball and try to vary what I watch, NBA, Euroleague, NCAA, our own league etc, I also watch a lot of basketball clinics and read a lot.
I think reading is very important, I try to also vary what I read it’s not always basketball books.
What advice would you give to young coaches in England who want to make it their career?
The best advice I can give is be constantly learning and have a hunger for knowledge, try and surround yourself with good coaches, go and watch other coaches take practices, ask coaches questions about what they do and what they have done to become good coaches. Attend coaching clinics, coach at camps, read as much as you can.
Long term, what are you goals, where do you want to be in the next, 5-10 years?
I want to continue to push myself professionally as much as possible, I would love to coach at the highest level in Europe or in the States in the coming years. I would also love to be involved in the GB Senior set up one day, coaching your national team I think should be a pinnacle for all professional coaches. At the moment I am concentrating on my job here in Aalborg and trying to make this club as successful as I can.