Stella Kaltsidou leading London into uncharted territory -

Stella Kaltsidou leading London into uncharted territory

The rise of London Lions into European contenders has been emphatic, and the rise of Stella Kaltsidou should not be understated either.

Re-wind 13 months and the start of the reign in the capital would begin with the end of London Lions’ record-breaking domestic win streak. And now, a historic European Finals tie is on the horizon off the back of yet more silverware accrued in the WBBL in Birmingham at the start of 2024.

The investment during the 777 era has provided a major launching pad for the success of the franchise, but it has been a time not short on controversies – the latest seemingly spelling the crushing end to the women’s team competing in Europe, according to multiple reports – surfacing in the heart of their playoffs campaign.

There was also the decision to relieve Mark Clark of his coaching duties in the midst of a record-breaking unbeaten run, and just days after winning another piece of silverware in the WBBL.

In came Stella Kaltsidou: a new name on these shores, but one respected across Europe with a strong pedigree from her playing days in the not-so-distant past. A savvy forward that also represented Greece at international level for two decades before moving into coaching in 2019 – currently also serving as an assistant coach of Slovenia’s senior national team.

Now tasked with taking a British club to the next level, with a first prominent role in a new country a sizeable challenge in itself.

[Just to note: five of the 11 teams in the WBBL currently have a female head coach – something that has been a growing underlying desire across women’s sports in general – ensuring there are women in prominent positions.]

The start in London, however, was far from ideal for Kaltsidou. The long-unbeaten streak came crashing down at the hands of Caledonia Gladiators in the very first league game, and only fuelled the discontent towards Clark’s departure.

Since that defeat, London’s record stands at P49, W48, L1 in all competitions. Naturally, there was a period of transition, but it didn’t take long for ‘normal service’ to resume. Let’s also not forget that this was a club that was 0-16 in the curtailed 2019-20 season.

Eat. Sleep. Repeat the Streak. Etcetera. (They already have the second-longest unbeaten run in the WBBL with 33 consecutive wins)

Trophy, Championship and Playoffs titles cemented back-to-back clean domestic clean sweeps, and the Lions were quick to state their intent on furthering their European experience.

The process has never been about just dominating in the WBBL, there was a bigger picture – that effects British Basketball as a whole: competing in Europe and putting the UK on the map. And, Kaltsidou has been unfazed by any narrative surrounding their gulf at the top.

“This has to be the motivation for other clubs as well to upgrade their level,” in response to their dominance being labelled as ‘boring’. “This is the only way to upgrade British Basketball because there is so much potential – it’s also about putting the right people in the right place.”

After back-to-back trips to the EuroCup Play-Offs, the Lions had their sights on moving up to EuroLeague status.

The ambition was clear – as Kaltsidou outlined upon being announced as the new head coach in February, 2023 – and sentiments echoed by General Manager Vanja Cernivec, who has also played a major role in this journey.

“The goal is to build a team based on the best British players which, with patience and hard work, will succeed to become a stable power in Europe. I believe that this way this project can have a continuity over the years and become a pole of attraction for the next generations of British basketball.”

The Lions assembled star power like the league has never seen before. GB stars Temi Fagbenle, Karlie Samuelson and Cheridene Green all signed this past summer as well as former WNBA first round picks Megan Gustafson and Abby Meyers – just to scratch at the surface of the depth of talent.

Kaltsidou won multiple Championships as a player including during a spell in Poland playing alongside Fagbenle – plus former-Lion and GB legend Jo Leedham-Warner – thus helping play a role in recruitment with connections firmly established.

“It’s been such a blessing to be under Stella, to be led by her,” Fagbenle told Hoopsfix. “Being able to see her grow from strength to strength throughout the season has been such a beautiful thing to witness.

“She’s grown as a coach over this whole time, as well as us growing as individuals and players as well – so I’m so glad to be a part of it with her.”

An efficient player that methodically went about their business on the court, Kaltsidou resonates a calming presence on the sidelines, albeit with a stern persona that demands accountability. And importantly, the buy-in from the players has followed.

“Stella is amazing,” beamed Savannah Wilkinson in the aftermath of the Trophy Finals win. “She’s super transparent, which is really necessary as a coach. We all know our roles. She’s easy to talk to and super locked in all the time. Definitely one of my favourite coaches.”

It speaks volumes that London’s only defeat this season came against DVTK – a team that would go on to progress to the EuroLeague quarter-finals.

A blessing in disguise, perhaps, that their elimination in the qualifiers has enabled a deep run in the EuroCup competition with 14 successive victories en route to reaching the Finals, but most definitely not where the fairytale should end – win or lose.

“This is something the organisation will decide,” Kaltsidou commented after the semi-finals second leg victory. “It isn’t to do with us, we will stay focused and will try to do the best job we can, go to the final and give our everything.”

Who knows what the future holds for the Lions women’s team. This really could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to win a European title – this team has already etched itself into the history books either way – and it would certainly be a huge addition on Kaltsidou’s personal CV.

The Finals begin in Istanbul on 3rd April, before the second leg takes place at the Copper Box Arena in London on 10th April.

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