In the Acer Nethercott sports hall on Iffley Road, there are men bouncing balls and talking about ‘the Blues’. They toss a ball at the hoop and return to talking about ‘the Blues’. They dribble round one, round two, lay it up… for the DUNK… ‘it’s going to be a great season for us Blues’. The unfortunate truth is that barely any of these men are really Blues. Whether they will be is up to them.
To get a Blue in Oxford University men’s basketball, you can’t just show up. That’s all good for your footballers, your rowers, but for these guys, there are strings attached. And yes, that’s partly to do with the status of the game, of a sport that is not in the UK’s top ten. But it’s also the result of the catastrophic failures of recent Blues basketball.
The Oxford University Basketball Club, and this is not an overstatement, is a once-great institution in ruins. This is a club that had markedly one of the best university squads in the country from its official post-war inception until a decade ago. They won championship after championship. They transcended university sport. In the 1960s, they were considered by many to be the best basketball team in the country.
Now, we see the dying embers of that past inferno. In 2018, the men’s Blues were relegated. They weren’t just relegated, they lost every game. Which makes the next part less shocking: in 2019, they were relegated again. Accordingly, as last year’s basketball programme started, and then stopped, and then started again, as lockdowns came and went, the Blues sat, languidly, two tiers below the top flight, wearing kits so wizened and worn-out that they could have been worn by championship-winning sides.
It’s an unfortunate image, though one you probably don’t care very much about. But please bear with me, because there is a story here, a story that we’ll be following throughout this term—something special is happening down at Iffley Road. In June, in a low-key AGM meeting, Bill De La Rosa was elected president of the OUBbC. Bill’s probably the most impressive guy I’ve ever met. He’s both imposing and unimposing—neat lawyerly hair, confident, not very tall for a basketball player, speaks frankly and speaks intently—and his story has been told an uncountable number of times. A well-told personal story and brand is not too unique for foreign students on scholarships in Oxford. If you, say, look up any Rhodes scholar, Google tends to throw a whole archive of heroism at you. But even by these standards, Bill has one of the richer personal arcs.
He was born into a low-income Latino family in South Tucson, Arizona. He played basketball as “an outlet to escape some of the problems I had in my family, in my neighborhood, and do a sport I enjoyed playing”. It was clearly an effective outlet if that’s what it was. Bill continued playing into high school, as a point guard, wearing the number 44. He continued until he couldn’t anymore.
And he couldn’t anymore because his mother was deported back to Mexico, and his father became ill, and his siblings needed looking after. And Bill was 15. At 15, he put aside all extracurriculars, and he cared for a family, and he studied. He got a scholarship to Bowdoin College and then he got a scholarship to Oxford and then got a scholarship to Oxford again. He won awards and made commencement speeches and accepted fellowships. He is currently working for a PhD in criminology, in preparation for Yale Law School, while working on the application process for his mother to finally return to the US (after years of activism).
But of course, there’s one more thing. Last week, Bill says he spent 30-40 hours on work related to Oxford University basketball. At this point, I realised. The man I had been in awe of for the last hour was out of his mind. Why would anyone doing an Oxford PhD (let alone the other things) devote a full-time amount of work to a part-time university sport gig?
Bill admits he needs to start doing a bit more work on his actual academics, but, on the other hand, this is the romance of it. Here is this guy who’s been both incredibly unfortunate and incredibly fortunate. He was forced to raise a family at 15, but he’s also now a Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford. He has reached this point and yet he wants to devote his time to reliving those pre-15 dreams, as he struts the Acer Nethercott hall with the number 44 on his back. As I watch him, I can’t help but feel this remains an outlet for something, for escaping from the large burden that comes from being *the* Bill De La Rosa, or at least, the post-15 Bill De La Rosa.
Either way, his commitment is good for the club. As these hours that Bill has put in have racked up, the club is slowly changing. For one thing, those old kits are gone, replaced by new stash of all kinds, covered in Kappa branding—the same company used by teams in the BBL (the UK top professional league). But the changes go far beyond new gear, and that’s not just thanks to Bill, that’s thanks to a new coach, soon to be announced. I’ll write more about this next week.
For now, let’s remember the stakes. This team is desperate for promotion, to move back to at least the level below the top flight. This is not just for the obvious reasons, but because it is one of the two situations under which the players get their coveted official Blues. The other scenario: a win against Cambridge in the centenary Varsity match. And as a light extra, the players have hopes to win the Midlands Cup and the Oxford Basketball Association Cup. This is all in the context that to get promoted, a team historically has had to win pretty much every league match. And the Blues’ main rivals in their division: Oxford Brookes. So, this team have high expectations to win every match they’re going into, and their main rival is Brookes—the story writes itself.
I watched the players in their preparations this week for this max-stakes season ahead. A highlight was the three-point shootout. Selected players stood behind the three-point line and had a minute to get the ball in the hoop as many times as possible. The players had peculiarly similar experiences in their attempts. The first few shots wouldn’t go in and then they’d get a load in a row, and then have a string of failures again.
The defining element of the exercise was inertia. A player would miss by slightly undershooting, and then they’d do the same slight undershoot five times in a row. Conversely, if they got it in, they’d generally get a few more in straight after. I’m basically new to this sport, but I don’t think it’s horribly misunderstanding to say the whole game is kind of like this—it’s about flow, and if something’s off, that can spiral. In a season where every game is a must-win, I hope the Blues start hitting their threes from the beginning, starting on Wednesday.
Image Credits: Via Oxford University Basketball Club.