This is a golden age of Cheshire Phoenix basketball
Some thoughts on the Cheshire Phoenix beating the London Lions to lift their second British Basketball League (BBL) Trophy in three years:
- I’m incredibly proud of the Phoenix, my local club. I live just five miles from Ellesmere Port Sports Village, their smart new home, and I attend a handful of games each season. And while I’m by no means a hoops junkie, nor a Phoenix diehard, it pleases me to see them succeed – especially given their status as a perennial underdog in the evolving landscape of British basketball.
- I’m particularly thrilled for Ben Thomas, the homegrown head coach who has revolutionised his beloved club. Born and raised in Ellesmere Port, Thomas followed Cheshire as a fan during their original golden age – then known as the Jets – in the early-2000s. He became a volunteer in 2012, as the Phoenix were reborn from the ashes of financial squalor, and learned at the heel of several head coaches before taking the top job in 2017. Since then, the Phoenix have posted improved league placings year-on-year, while winning a BBL Cup and two BBL Trophy titles from three finals. That is a remarkable record and a phenomenal transformation.
- A word, too, for James Brice, the team’s unsung general manager. Another local lad, Brice also followed Cheshire as a fan before taking the reins in 2015. He is young, humble and a sophisticated operator with growing connections throughout the game. His work in rebuilding the Phoenix – from relative minnows to sustainable winners – should not be overlooked.
- Indeed, context is required to fully appreciate Cheshire’s recent achievements. The Phoenix are part of a community interest company, rather than operating as a purely commercial entity. As such, the club has limited resources and a municipal mission that extends far beyond wins and losses. Thomas and Brice do not have unlimited tools at their disposal while attempting to build, retain and reinvent a competitive ballclub. That they continue to do so, challenging and defeating larger clubs with greater resources, is a testament to their abilities. Other clubs are surely taking note.
- The resource gap is perhaps best illustrated, in extreme, by the Phoenix and Lions. Cheshire is a tight-knit, crowdsourced troupe from a humble town; London is a dominant, aspirational juggernaut from a sprawling metropolis. Cheshire plays in an offshoot gymnasium with benches for 1,400 fans; London plays in the prestigious Copper Box, an Olympic-standard venue with 6,000 seats. Phoenix players earn a respectable wage while often working second jobs; Lions players are paid lavishly while often bringing proven track records from the US. In short, the two clubs operate in different stratospheres, and London is a heavy favourite every time they meet.
- As such, the Phoenix’ penchant for beating London – and in comfortable fashion – is rather miraculous. Cheshire beat London in the 2022 BBL Trophy final, 82-68, before triumphing again this weekend, 98-82. Granted, the Lions are more geared towards league and continental competition, and they have knocked Cheshire out of the BBL playoffs in successive seasons, but any modicum of Phoenix success against London should be celebrated. It is truly a David versus Goliath matchup, and David often wins.
- In many ways, the Phoenix remind me of the Tampa Bay Rays in Major League Baseball. Both are small market teams with comparatively few resources that consistently compete at the highest level, frustrating mightier opponents at every turn. Somebody should really get under the skin of Phoenix operations and explain how Thomas, et al, continue to compound marginal gains and wring every last drop of value from their personnel. A lot of transferrable lessons can probably be learned there, to be applied effectively in a range of contexts. There is an untapped goldmine of managerial theory and its practical application in Ellesmere Port. More needs to be made of this compelling case study.
- Freshly endowed with silverware, the Phoenix are currently third in the BBL standings, too. Can they go one better this year and topple London in the playoffs? Can Thomas and Brice deliver Cheshire’s first national basketball championship since 2002? Can the micro-dynasty find its crowning crescendo? Time will tell, but the Phoenix can never be written off.
- Ultimately, this is a halcyon era of Cheshire Phoenix basketball, and the team’s achievements deserve far more coverage in the local and national press. The work done by so many spirited volunteers should be rewarded with praise, just as it is being recognised with trophies. We have a wonderful little basketball team in this neck of the woods, and we should all try to help it thrive. Go Nix!