Lee Reilly finds the basketball back in his court

Ready to Rock: Lee Reilly thought a career in basketball had passed him by, but a call from Glasgow Rocks coach Sterling Davis has seen him resurrect his ambitions.  Picture: John Devlin

Ready to Rock: Lee Reilly thought a career in basketball had passed him by, but a call from Glasgow Rocks coach Sterling Davis has seen him resurrect his ambitions. Picture: John Devlin

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Lee Reilly is running sprints on his own. Back and forth across the court, an exercise in metronomic tedium. While his Glasgow Rocks team-mates are cooling off after practice at the Emirates Arena, sharing jokes, engaging in the braggadocio of “who can pull off the best slam dunk”, the newest addition to Scotland’s flagbearers in the British Basketball League is playing a solo game of catch-up.

Barely a month ago, the 25-year-old was spending his working days engaged in the less-than-sporty pursuit of dealing with complaints and retirement plans at an Edinburgh-based insurer. Fast forward to this afternoon and he can expect to take a meaningful role as the Rocks bid to emerge victorious from a BBL Cup Final showdown against Newcastle Eagles at Birmingham’s Barclaycard Arena.

Opportunity knocks for Reilly. Yet he had all but given up on hearing its arrival at his doorstep. Capped for Great Britain at under-20 level after coming through the junior system at Edinburgh Kings, the shooting guard was lured to Germany to play professionally with Gotha Rockets.

He thought he was set fair for a lengthier and more lucrative career than his father Dougie, a former dynamo for the once-prominent Livingston Bulls. “It was incredible. The standard of our team was very good. I was going up against older players every single day in practice. It really gave me a tougher test above and beyond what I had with GB Under-20s.”

Yet this is where his vehicle came upon a roadblock and swerved off into a cul-de-sac, a diversion that has proven all too familiar for so many. The protectionist rules in Germany, designed to carve out a path for their own prodigies, meant only three foreigners could be on court together at any one time. Reilly sought to move on. Another club, one league below, came wooing.

The summer of 2015 proceeded. The ardour from his prospective employers cooled without any definitive rejection. Then, he recounts: “I found out online they’d signed an American guard. And since in that league, you have to play three Germans at any one time, I knew that move wouldn’t happen.”

Already late in the off-season recruiting period, he phoned around. Rocks coach Sterling Davis was an admirer but his budget was spent. Other clubs were similarly stumped. “Nothing worked out unfortunately and that was disappointing after the high of playing at such a good level.”

Which is why he was forced into a sabbatical with no expected end, and why it took a mid-season injury for Davis to ask the question of whether Reilly would be game for a second chance or accept he was done for good. It’s also why he is attempting to regain full fitness and re-energise his instincts, with all the additional labour it entails. “It’s just the sharpness,” he says. “I’m still getting my conditioning back.”

Three games in, and the reclamation project is ahead of schedule. Yet for every Reilly embraced, there is a talent wholly lost, he says.

Although there is hope that a revamped set of operating licences for each BBL team, due to come into effect later this year, will usher in a revolution in the development pyramid, with teams like the Rocks eventually expanding downwards with youth systems of their own, a model long standard elsewhere in Europe.

No longer would it be a case at age 18 of earning a scholarship to an American university or hoping for a show of faith. “Unfortunately there’s not really a clear pathway, especially not in Scotland,” says Reilly. The contacts to recruiters across the pond are too patchy to be effective, he adds. “At least in England, they’ve set up basketball academies that can help you get over there. Even if it’s American Division 2 or 3, it doesn’t matter.

“We focus too much on Division 1. It’s about going to a place where you can play. Gareth Murray went to a junior college. Hayden Lescault is here after going to a D2 college. If we could produce players like him, we’d be laughing. There’s just a lack of progression for us coming out of the junior set-up, unfortunately.”

Maybe the next generation will fare better. The Rocks’ incumbent crop – which also includes the Great Britain captain Kieron Achara – have lofty goals despite a recent slump which followed a club-record streak of 12 successive victories.

Omnipotent Newcastle, looking for a third consecutive Cup triumph, have not lost to Glasgow since April 2012, a stretch of 17 successive wins that includes the 2015 final.

With injuries plaguing their build-up, the Scots will be underdogs. Reilly, with his reserves of enthusiasm refilled, will not let recent history pollute his thoughts. “It’s exciting to be playing in the final now. It’s a great opportunity and I can’t wait to get out there.”

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