Meet the independent brand trying to build a better community for British basketball

On 22 February 2021, Behrad Bakhtiari, 23, and Denzel Kazembe, 22, posted a series of TikTok videos rating local basketball courts around Canterbury. Receiving overnight attention, and amassing more than 100,000 likes within 24 hours, these videos marked the start of their brand, Simply British Ballers (SBB).

Celebrating one year since its creation, SBB has grown substantially. Now boasting more than 300,000 followers and 8.4m likes on TikTok, the brand was created with a mission to combat the disconnect within the basketball community in the UK.

"We realised there was such a massive community, it was a great opportunity for us to try and build that community and create a connection that we didn’t have growing up playing basketball in the country," Bakhtiari says.

Having grown up with the sport, Bakhtiari and Kazembe, who met playing basketball at the University of Kent in 2018, recognised the disadvantages experienced by players in the UK. In particular, they identified the lack of direction accessible to young players that is needed to reach professional levels.

Many young players with dreams of 'going pro', especially those with aspirations to play in the NBA, are left with little to no guidance on how to reach their full potential. Through no fault of their own, their dreams often fall short of their expectations.

Talking to The Independent in 2016, South Sudanese-British former NBA player, Luol Deng said: "The potential is there. I tried my hardest to help the growth of the game, I just feel more could be done. A lot of kids love basketball, but as they get older, there’s nowhere to turn. They stop playing."

This is an experience Kazembe understands. Not realising until age 17 that making it to the professional leagues would have required earlier recognition and guidance, he stopped playing for a year before re-joining the sport recreationally at university. The lack of awareness within the basketball community of how players can progress to playing at higher levels ultimately cost him the chance to demonstrate his potential.

"It happens a lot because there isn't enough information, there aren't enough routes to follow, and having that happen to a lot of kids is not what we want. It is a big reason why people just stop playing basketball, so that's something we definitely want to attack, and it starts with the youth," Kazembe says.

Creating SBB as a platform to tackle this disadvantage, he and Bakhtiari hope they can help guide British youth interested in basketball by providing the information they need to make their dreams a reality and by improving the lack of opportunity and accessibility for players in the UK.

With an aim to expand upon the level of the community they have already achieved, SBB is starting to train kids in and around London by hosting regular scrimmages and promoting 5StarUK, a basketball camp which will take players aged 13-17 to Valencia, Spain to train with EuroProBasket professional coaches this coming summer.

Josephine Maignomo, CEO of Jump For Health, a partner of 5StarUK, says: "It’s exposure. It’s making sure we get all these young athletes exposed to as many coaches as possible. What’s amazing about 5Star is that it’s not just in the UK, it’s actually going over to Spain and getting all different coaches that will be in the camp, even from the United States."

Maignomo, who previously played for the Brixton Topcats, the club where Deng began his career, started her company in 2015. Promoting the sport among those with learning difficulties, she has put an emphasis on the accessibility of the sport among the country’s youth, believing a higher focus on the sport across all levels of education, from primary school through to college, will foster a better community for basketball in the UK.

Both Jump For Health and SBB have voiced the need for more academies specialising in basketball and believe this is a key component to raising the accessibility and profile of the sport in the UK. Expressing their hopes of starting their own academy or training facility to give young players the opportunity to receive increased exposure and better training, both Jump For Health and SBB face the problem of funding.

In an interview with The Independent in April 2021, Vince Macaulay, co-founder of the Brixton Topcats, and owner of British Basketball League franchise London Lions, commented on the disproportionate ratio of participation versus funding that basketball receives in comparison to other popular British sports.

"We outstrip rugby and cricket [in participation] but you look at how much funding they are getting, £50m here, £100m there. On what basis? Fair funding is what we’ve always campaigned for the last five or six years," Macaulay said.

Although widespread national funding remains disproportionate to the level of participation in the sport, the British Basketball League (BBL), the highest level of professional basketball within the UK, has recently received a £7m investment from a Miami based private investment firm.

Announced on 20 December 2021, 777 Partners, whose portfolio also includes Sevilla, F.C., London Lions and Italian team Genoa C.F.C, have invested £7m into the BBL in return for a 45 per cent stake in the professional league in the hopes that such an investment can bolster the sport within the UK, and reduce the disparity between the participation and funding of the sport.

Highlighting their plan to spread the funds among both professional and community levels of the sport, in an article published on the League’s website, Sir Rodney Walker, chairman of the BBL said: "As a result of this significant injection of capital, we are now able to fast track the League’s big ambitions and unlock the huge untapped potential that we know the sport of basketball has in this country."

With this investment deal raising the stakes for the BBL at the top level of the sport, whilst independent companies such as SBB and Jump For Health help to foster strength at the community level, it is hopeful that the profile of basketball within the UK will be raised to break down the barriers faced by British players.