Just Play hoping to grow casual basketball in the Black Country

The uber-competitive amongst us may not believe it – but sport isn’t necessarily down to winning.

That’s the idea for Chloe Aretha Burdett anyway, who’s hoping to help spread the word of community sports through the means of one of the biggest participation sports in the country – basketball.

Not a regular column-filler in many British newspapers, Basketball has kept a low profile under the ever increasing shadow of the NBA across the pond.

But whilst it’s light years behind the likes of football, rugby and other classic UK-based sports, grassroots basketball teams have been cropping up across the country, and in the Midlands, as the sport’s popularity has grown.

Affordable, enjoyable and riding on the wave of modern culture – nowadays countless youngsters here can reel off some of the world’s biggest NBA stars despite living more than 3,000 miles from the nearest franchise. The basketball bug has bitten Britain, albeit not with the same ferocity as the NFL.

That bug has gotten Brits young and old interested in the sport – but what if they aren’t quite at the level of Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry? Just Play could be the answer.

Set-up in the Black Country by Burdett at the beginning of 2018, Just Play gives those curious about basketball a chance to try the game regardless of age, gender, level of ability – or indeed height.

“It all started here in January.” she says.

“But initially my mum set-up Just Play in Northampton in 2008. She’s a registered coach, so I was always growing up with basketball and that’s basically why I’ve decided to help it spread.

“It’s really chilled, we give people the chance to turn up and play without getting people to commit to playing for a competitive team.

“Not everyone wants to do that every week – go through training session with one eye on playing competitively in a structured environment.”

She’s right, whilst teams in and around the Midlands are growing – the sport isn’t purely down to these ‘die-hard’ players to keep itself going.

Basketball England, the sport’s governing body states that over 33,000 members are on its books, playing in more than 700 teams. However, more than 300,000 people over the age of 16 play the sport at least twice a month, with one in four teenagers doing so at least once a month in the last year.

That means just over 10 per cent of British basketball players play for a structured team in the country, be it at a National or local league level.

Just Play focuses on that majority, who clearly don’t savour the idea of joining a club and playing competitively – many of whom prefer to pick up a ball and get on-court on an ad hoc basis.

Burdett is one of these players herself, having played since the age of ten, she was rated highly enough to be considered as a player at an international level before injury forced her to give up playing at such a high level.

“My mum was all about basketball, all of my cousins and my sisters played too. I started training with Northampton, my local team, and from then I always played.

“When I was 13 I started playing at a higher level, and then at my highest I was in and around the England development squad for two years – but I got injured.

“Before that it was all wanting to be in the WNBA, getting scholarships. Doing that I didn’t know what else I’d do, before getting hurt – some people talked to me about [getting into] physiotherapy and things like that, but I just wanted to play.

“That’s what got me to set-up Just Play, now and then I might get onto the court too! It gives people a chance to play when they’re able to instead of when they have to.”

Following knee surgery, a professional career quickly proved a step too far, and following a degree and a move to the Black Country, she decided to use the game she loved to help others like her play the sport, but not at a level which required continuous commitment.

Linking with local league side West Brom Basketball Club, Just Play offers those interested in basketball a chance to pick up a ball and play each Tuesday evening at West Brom Leisure Centre, a session which has become so popular that it’s regularly over-subscribed.

At the beginning of the year just a few faces turned up each week. Now the session hosts a maximum of 30 players each time. Before setting player limit on the weekly fixture, up to 40 prospective players would arrive in an effort to play in the 90 minute slot.

“The growth has been crazy” she says.

“Before we’d have some people come and then not turn up for a few weeks. But now we have so many people coming every week, I’m not sure if it’s the relaxed atmosphere or the community aspect we have, but everyone seems to enjoy it.

“It’s crazy because when I moved to the Midlands I didn’t know anyone, so I just messaged teams around the area and suddenly people started coming and really embraced the idea.”

With men and women able to feature on the same court, Just Play brings something else to a sport which isn’t commonly mixed between different genders and ability groups.

On top of that, providing younger players with something to do on an evening in a safe and friendly environment is an obvious bonus to parents too, whilst the relaxed atmosphere also helps build confidence in players who might not feel up to joining a competitive side.

“I think because it’s so laid back is why it’s really connected with people here.”

“We don’t expect people to show up each week, that’s what it’s all about. People don’t always have the time or the money to commit to membership to teams, which then have match days and events which players are expected to go to.

“Whereas at Just Play as long as you’re willing to understand the game and are eager to learn then you’re welcome to play.”

“Whether it’s raining, snowing or whatever – people do just come along knowing that they’ll be able to play as part of a community. I actually thought it might die down over the summer with the nice weather but it’s gotten even busier if I’m being honest!”

Given the growth of the session here in the Black Country, there has been some suggestion that more Just Play sessions could begin to sprout around the country – but Burdett is keeping her feet on the ground for now.

“I get a lot of support from other clubs around the country. I had one from London message me to see what I’m about which is nice.

“I suppose I’m very loyal to West Brom, we’ve grown so much while we’ve been here and at the minute it’s doing so much more for me, the sport and the area than I wanted.

“I’m not completely exclusive, but for now I’m hoping to see it grow locally before thinking otherwise.”

If you’re interested in getting involved with Just Play and getting into basketball, you can get in touch via Instagram by searching for JustPlay.

@Luke_Hatfield

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