London Lions' final dance: a European title before the curtain falls -

London Lions’ final dance: a European title before the curtain falls

London Lions win Eurocup

It was the strangest of juxtapositions.

In amongst the electric atmosphere of the Copper Box, as a near packed out arena celebrated London Lions women’s clinching of the EuroCup title – becoming the first British team to win a European championship in the process – there was an undercurrent, a recognition from everyone that it is the last time we’ll see this team together.

London Lions vs Besiktas full copper box

Their 81-70 win over Besiktas (149-145 on aggregate) was more than a game; it was a historic moment for British basketball, one that held such gravitas that it made the BBC News at 10 headlines.

Yet, beneath the surface – while women’s basketball is going through an inflection point in the US after the culmination of the NCAA tournament – a shadow looms over the women’s game here.

Miami-based 777 Partners, the investment firm that own the Lions, has made the heart-wrenching decision to withdraw the team from European competition next season, despite their unprecedented success, and now assured spot in the Euroleague.

“We fully intend to resume participation internationally and look forward to doing so as a self-sustained, elite women’s basketball programme,” 777 said in a statement at the end of March.

“We are wholeheartedly committed to this long-term objective, recognising that achieving this goal effectively will require time and strategic development.”

Stella Kaltsidou EuroCup celebrations

Head Coach Stella Kaltsidou couldn’t hide her mixed emotions, reflecting on the monumental achievement and the bittersweet reality that follows.

“We put British basketball on the top of Europe,” she stated, her hope being that the country will leverage this success for the benefit of the sport, urging not to let it “just get lost.”

The players share this sentiment, with star player Holly Winterburn declaring both pre- and post-game that this was the last time this group will play together.

“It breaks my heart,” she said, talking with a finality that can only confirm the fan’s worst fears.

“I can’t thank London enough for what they’ve done for me, what they’ve done for British basketball.

“I wouldn’t be the player or person I am without London and I’ll forever be grateful and I’ll miss it forever.

“But, you know, it’s time to move on and move on to the next chapter…

“We’ve had the best time. You know, I love this group and we all love each other and it’s been so much fun. I think knowing that this team is going to disperse after this game just having that one last dance and that one last time together made it more special.

“We found out about the the investment not happening for next year quite a while ago, and if anything, it brought us together. You know, we thought if we’re going to go out, we’re going to go out on a high.

“It’s sad, obviously, but no one could ever take this away from us and we’ll share this bond forever.”

MVP Karlie Samuelson echoed the sentiment of hope and inspiration, emphasising the potential of women’s sports when given proper investment and attention.

Karlie Samuelson celebrates

Her message is clear: young girls everywhere should see this victory as proof that “they can do anything they want to do.”

Samuelson’s plea is for this moment not to be lost but used as a beacon to push for further investment in women’s sports.

“When people invest in women’s sports, obviously in March Madness right now, you can see that it’s just huge. And I hope that people push that. I hope it doesn’t get lost and look at what can happen.”

The order of departures, and who is leaving when is not exactly clear but the team is too talented – and expensive – to only play in WBBL.

Kaltsidou did confirm in the press conference that Karlie Samuelson and Megan Gustafson will be leaving immediately to head into WNBA training camp, the rest, “we will see”. Temi Fagbenle told BBC Sport last week this would be her “first and last year” playing here.

Yet, the decision by 777 Partners – as painful as it is – has been made to put the team on a stronger footing over the long term as they look to build from the bottom up, not from the top down.

They have spent a lot of money, and spent it quick; the firm went on record in December to say their total investment in British basketball between the Lions and the League is over £40 million.

Bringing in players of the calibre they have does not come cheap – one insider told Hoopsfix they believe their budget would have been in the top half of teams in the Euroleague, let alone the EuroCup.

All the while, ticket sales, which averaged in the very low hundreds, struggled until the showpiece final.

It highlights the delicate balance between achieving success and securing the financial and structural support necessary to sustain it.

As 777 Partners promises a future return to international competition, the sports community is left to wonder what could have been for a team that achieved the unthinkable.

And with the London Lions celebrating their historic win, the reality is setting in that this “one last dance”, might be the greatest final performance the game will ever see.

“When you know that this is your last dance…” Kaltsidou paused.

“I think we really danced out there.”

One hopes that with the victory a paradigm shift of what British basketball can be is occurring, serving as a catalyst to unify the sport, encourage stakeholders to collectivise their efforts, and propel the game into a new era of progress and collaboration.

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