Basketball-Britain's Lions eye history but Euro future uncertain

(Reuters) - London Lions women stand on the brink of British basketball history as they prepare for their EuroCup final against Besiktas but funding issues are already clouding the horizon.

Stella Kaltsidou's team have dominated the British Basketball League with a 100% record from 13 games this season but they have bigger fish to fry.

They became the first British club to reach a European final when they beat Venezia in the EuroCup semis and can claim another milestone in a two-legged final against Turkey's Besiktas starting next week.

It would be the culmination of a project by Miami-based owners 777 Partners to mix the best of British with international recruits to mould a team capable of mixing it with the continental elite.

General manager Vanja Cernivec, who arrived at London Lions two years ago having worked for the Chicago Bulls as the NBA's first female scout, believes victory could be a tipping point for British basketball.

"If we manage to bring this home and win the EuroCup it's going to be a great story for British basketball and hopefully a great inspiration for kids to pick up the ball and actually see the pathway to professional sport," she told Reuters.

Lions play the first leg away on Wednesday before the second leg at London's Copperbox Arena on April 10 -- their adopted home for bigger games.

"Our goal is to sell it out, because this team deserves that," Cernivec, who hails from Slovenia, said. "We've already achieved our goals in terms of reaching the final. And we really hope we can write history."

One of the aims of London Lions was to provide a platform for British players who traditionally had to look at Europe and the United States to pursue their careers.

London-born guard Shanice Beckford-Norton returned in 2020 and is joined by other British talents such as Holly Winterburn and Savannah Wilkinson who both excelled across the Atlantic in the NCAA. American-Brit Karlie Samuelson and Megan Gustafson, both boasting impressive WNBA careers, also joined in 2023.

Baltimore-born forward Temi Fagbenle, who grew up in London before returning to the U.S. where she played for Minnesota Lynx, said the call from the Lions offered something special.

"There have been a more troughs than peaks for British basketball," Fagbenle said at the team's Loughton training facility in north east London. "But what we are doing now is history-making and such a blessing.

"Kids recognise me walking around in England. It's like 'Oh my gosh that's not how it was when I was growing up.'"


Lions missed out on the EuroLeague this season as the new recruits bedded in but Fagbenle believes the EuroCup is within their grasp, even if it will be tough against Besiktas who have requested 2,000 tickets for the second leg.

Sadly, however, she says the team will probably break up as 777 Partners -- whose investment in British basketball has been a game-changer -- scale back funding.

The American backers have announced they have undertaken a strategic review and will focus on domestic competition and the academy rather than continental competition for 2024-25.

"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.

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

Cernivec credits 777 Partners for the faith they have shown in British basketball and has not given up on new investment, saying the EuroCup final is a perfect shop window.

"I'm still hopeful," she said. "But we're not thinking about next season. It's now that we have to perform and then we'll see what the next chapter is."

Even if the Lions' European adventures might be curtailed, veteran Belarussian player Kat Snytsina believes their exploits have raised the bar in Britain women's league.

"I feel like compared to last season teams are adjusting physically and getting more athletic," she said.

"Most teams don't like us because we are winning all the time but I think 'just get better, don't complain about us.'"

The Lions men failed to emulate the women as they lost their EuroCup semi-final to Paris.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)

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