Packham: The Problems Within English Basketball -

Packham: The Problems Within English Basketball

Roy Packham has been involved with English basketball for some 40 years, being the junior coach to the now defunct but legendary Crystal Palace programme for about 30 years, winning 5 National Titles and 4 National Cups and remaining the only junior team to go undefeated for two straight seasons. For many years he spent periods of time in the USA where he was lucky enough to learn from the likes of Bob Knight, Jimmy Valvano, Dean Smith and others. Now retired, in the early days of Hoopsfix Packham contributed a series of articles around the state of the game in the UK; he’s back!

This article is primarily about junior basketball, but much applies to the present game at all levels.
Over the past years, the way the style of the game is played has changed considerably, but, what has not materially changed is the improvement of the playing standard. In fact, I would venture to say it has deteriorated at both senior and junior level.

Having seen many junior games, at both Under-18 and Under-16 level, I was constantly amazed at the number of players who travel, who carry the ball while dribbling (in some cases, almost literally), who cannot set correct screens, and at the “fighting” that goes on under the hoop.

However, what did not surprise me was that none of these infringements was called by the officials.

How do youngsters improve if these, very basic, fundamentals are not taught correctly and then not called correctly by game officials?

Who is ultimately responsible; the coaches, the officials, or, does the responsibility lie elsewhere, with Basketball England?

What must and can be done to improve the playing standard of junior basketball; after all, the very future of the English game ultimately depends solely on young people coming in to the game, developing the correct fundamentals and playing skills and, eventually, being able to perform at the highest level.


Coaches of course have a direct responsibility for the development of players, but at present the overall coaching standard leaves much to be desired. This is evidenced by the aforementioned lack of correct skills and fundamentals. I watched a coach attempt to show a post player a particular skill, but was actually teaching the player to travel.

The coach has two parts to his job; teaching and coaching. For 90% of his time the coach is purely a teacher, at practise, trying to teach the basics of the game. The other 10% of the time he is coaching a game, when he needs to be able to recognise what is actually happening on court, when and how to correctly substitute, when to change offence or defence, how to get mis-matches, when to run special plays, when to take a time out, and so on and so forth.

One could well question the ‘dress code’ of some coaches. Coaching games in cut down jeans and wearing some old sweater is, I would suggest, not conducive to the professionalism that arguably should be shown when coaching a game.

As a well known American coach has said, a coach should ‘dress for success’. Being well dressed surely gives the coach more authority? Of course, wearing a suit might look savvy, and is not necessarily the most functional courtside attire, but sometimes, the image a coach projects is more important than function. The coach is the lead representative of his team and ‘dress code’ lends an air of professionalism and garners respect from his team.

At the moment, especially at junior level, any person might come into the game and start to coach, there is no meaningful or regular checks to ensure coaches are correctly qualified. He or she, may well not be qualified. Coaches are not monitored or assessed. There is no meaningful pathway or encouragement for coaches to improve.

If a coach wants to take a qualification, Basketball England runs so-called coaching qualification courses, which might take just a few hours, and may or may not involve any exam or assessment, after which a coaching qualification can be gained. One only has to look at the overall present standard of coaching to realise the complete inadequacies of this system of qualification.

Some time ago I wrote an article for Hoopsfix that outlined the pathways that coaches were mandated to take in both Spain and Serbia if they wanted to coach, at any level. They are, infinitely, more stringent than that of our own National Governing Body.

I have always maintained, and still do, that the one and only way the standard of coaching can be improved is to have a fully functioning and independent coaching association, to which all coaches, at any level; senior junior, and cadet, must be affiliated. Every other European country has its own coaches association, so I have always questioned why Basketball England feels it needs to go its own way and do its own thing to try and develop coaching standards when these European methods are so obviously more successful than our own.

With a, fervent, coaching association, supervision would be a fundamental aspect and would have the mission of inspiring and championing coaching excellence and be dedicated to promoting best practice.

It would be responsible for devising the various levels of coaching qualifications, mentoring the coach at every level, giving coaches individual support where required, having a support library available, and organise and run clinics, some of which would be mandatory for a coach to attend, if he wants to coach.

In England there are inherent problems with such a suggestion, not least that of finance, but, with proper organisation and determination, there is no doubt it can be achieved.

In Spain, as an example, the Spanish Association of Basketball Coaches, (La Asociación Española de Entrenadores de Baloncesto – AEEB), is a non-profit organisation which has partners who maintain the Association through the income it receives. In addition to the membership fees, 60 euros per year, the AEEB also seeks, (and obtains) sponsors and receives some money from Institutions and a small amount from the Higher Sports Council, their Sports Ministry.

Although it is independent, its relationship with the Spanish Basketball Federation (Federacion Española de Baloncesto – FEB) is good and it (the AEEB) receives a small amount of income every year from the FEB. Its members (coaches) vote annually, in their AGM, for the budgets of the Association and approve the general lines of action. Elections are held every four years to elect the President and the Board of Directors. The Greek Coaches association (SEPK) have a very similar organisation.


The present average standard of game officiating is also poor, and not only at the junior and cadet level.
Recently, Steve Vear wrote an excellent article about officials and the standard of officiating in the country, an article which I would recommend reading.

A few weeks ago, Hoopsfix sat down with the Euroleague Director of Refereeing, Richard Stokes, for a question and answer session. Perhaps the one most important question that was not asked of Richard was, why are no UK FIBA referees appointed to officiate in any Eurocup or Euroleague game.

How many of our officials try to be as professional as possible? How many thoroughly know the rules and fully understand their interpretations and, more importantly, how to apply them? How many turn up at least one hour before the game, so they warm up and properly prepare for the game, correctly dressed?

On the other hand, how many turn up just 5 minutes or so before the game and then have to immediately start to officiate, in whatever clothes they have arrived in? How many are simply officiating for the money they charge clubs to officiate? How many officiate two, three, or even more games consecutively and think they can officiate well?

How many try, 100%, to improve?

With the exception of the BBL and NBL 1 and 2, game officials are not assessed, monitored, or given any meaningful support. Even with the BBL and NBL officials there is very little method and structure in observing and supporting its officials, so how do referees improve? How do they progress up the officiating ladder?

In Eurocup and Euroleague games every one of the 62 game officials are observed in each and every game by one of 13 observers (“referee coaches” as they are called)). After the game the officials must complete a self-evaluation report and are then sent a performance assessment sheet outlining such things as correct and incorrect calls made during the game.

Any official can then review his performance by watching the game video or those of his peer group. All officials receive coaching and take part in an “education” system.

Game officials are required to arrive at the airport of the city in which the game is scheduled to take place the day before the game and the vast majority of the officials while there will try and use a fitness room where possible. There is also a close discussion between the Eurocup/league coaches and referees so that the coaches have an input to rule changes and interpretations and know what to expect from game officials throughout the season.

Of course the Eurocup and Euroleague is at the highest level of European competition, but the preceding paragraphs do perhaps illustrate what referees must aspire to, if they want to excel as a referee.

In England many years ago, officials were appointed by the Association and, after every national league game (senior and junior), teams had to submit a report to the Association. Of course, some of the reports were determined by whether that particular team won or lost, but overall a fairly accurate picture could be determined of the level and competency of officials. In addition, all national league games (senior and junior) had an independently appointed commissioner, who sat with the table officials and then sent a report about the game to the Association.

Could that not be instigated without too much difficulty today?

Officials are independently appointed for the BBL and the NBL Divisions 1 and 2, and I suggest that officials also be appointed for junior games. At present, officials are appointed by the home team and this, very often, raises the question of impartiality.

How many clubs try and appoint an official with the highest grade possible? Surely it is important at junior level to appoint the very best officials possible, so that, as previously mentioned, incorrect fundamentals will be correctly called so these young players will learn what is right and what is wrong?

Much of what I have written, and more, has been mentioned in Steve Vear’s article, but at the end of his article Steve asks “what can be done?”

I would suggest that almost the only possible way to monitor, educate, assess, support and improve the standard of game officials is to have a referees association, in similar vein to my comments regarding a coaching association. All referees would be affiliated to it and any person who wants to become a referee would have to make application to it and then take its pertinent qualification before he or she could officiate. Referees would be continually supported, monitored and assessed.

To again use Spain as an example, the Association of Arbitrators (referees) appoint officials and require them to have undertaken various approved and quite rigorous training courses and to have taken and passed different exams and tests as they go up in category.

Of course it is easy to just sit back and say, there are too many problems, such as finance, or getting people to want to officiate, or setting up such a suggested association and organising it. However, like many things that apply to English basketball, with determination and the real desire to improve the game, it is most certainly possible, and, arguably, absolutely necessary to overcome these problems if we really want to improve officiating standards.

Basketball England  —  the Association

Although both coaches and officials have a direct responsibility for improving the playing standard, I argue that the prime and ultimate responsibility rest with the Association.

Basketball England is seemingly almost solely interested in quantity, in increasing the numbers of players who play the game so it is able to qualify to receive funding from Sport England and various other government bodies.

Why is it that Basketball England always has to ask to receive funding from ‘government’ sources? Do other European countries have to consistently depend on such major funding or does the quality and popularity of the sport enable clubs and the various Associations to obtain funding from many other sources to help fund their programs at all levels?

If Basketball England would improve the playing standard, and give far more effort and emphasis to quality rather than quantity, then, like these other European countries, would it not be able to attract sponsorship and not have to always rely on having to go, cap in hand, to Sport England to plead for funding?

Basketball England has, over the years, promulgated document after document, many of which just reiterate the same old theory of things, but has done very little in practical terms to increase the overall playing standard; as events at national level have constantly proved (with one notable exception).

At present, Basketball England in association with British Basketball organise the selection of, and programs for, our U20, U18 and U16 national teams. But while the organisation and planning leaves a lot to be desired, it simply enables the selection of our better players. It does almost nothing to allow for the overall improvement of junior basketball per se. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, and like it or not, the whole future of the sport is dependent upon junior players.

There are, indisputably, a whole host of problems for Basketball England to overcome, some of which are largely outside its control but would unarguably help the improvement of play. Availability of facilities, cost of facilities, English weather (outside courts), competition against other sports, and so on. There is no doubt that there are many other conflicting and competing interests and attractions open to young people these days than there were in the 1990’s and before.

Nevertheless, there are a number of options over which the Basketball England does have control, three of which I have mentioned above and all of which it is quite capable of implementing. Having just one person or even a small committee overseeing coaches or officials will never, ever, improve standards.

I mentioned that Basketball England seem far more interested in quantity, rather than quality, and this is given some support by the number of competitions and leagues that exist. The BBL, the NBL, Divisions 1, 2, 3, and a regional division, the EABL and other junior leagues/divisions. By having all these, it is hoped to attract as many players as possible, but then also, requires more and more officials and coaches – from somewhere.

Would it not be far better to have many less leagues, with smaller divisions? This would require fewer officials and coaches, but would also encourage the quality of playing standard to improve simply because the better players would be more in demand.

Final Thoughts

Is it even feasible that basketball in England will ever manage to get consistent and major sponsorship as in other countries? Certainly in the 1980s there was major sponsorship, of both clubs and the Association. Every club had sponsorship; one club had sponsorship at junior level. The sport was regularly televised, first on BBC and then Channel 4. Clubs competed in European competition. Every year there was a fully sponsored Christmas World Invitational Club Championship tournament that attracted some of the very best clubs from both Europe and America.

So, if possible then, is it possible now?

It was mentioned to me, that much of what Steve Vear and I have written in our articles has been written about a zillion times before. This is certainly true, as I have seen so many such articles over the past 30/40 years.

So my final question is, if so many people have been making these same criticisms over so many years, surely that gives merit to these continued criticisms, and something, somewhere is definitely wrong. If they are right, surely corrective action needs to be taken to exact these criticisms or else a detailed explanation of rebuttal should be given?

As Martin Henlan mentioned in his podcast with Hoopsfix, maybe the sport is in need of a dictator. But, that is another story!

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the above article are solely of the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of Hoopsfix.

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