Jr. NBA Tryouts: It's Bigger than Basketball

In preparation for the inaugural Jr. NBA European Finals, the London Lions held its two-day tryouts, on May 23rd and 24th, for their special select U-15 boys’ and U-15 girls’ teams, attracting just over 200 participants across London and the U.K. The over-subscribed numbers were far greater than the London Lions initially anticipated and presented the club with an excellent problem to have. 

The Jr. NBA European Finals is an elite youth basketball tournament from June 21st  – June 24th in Valencia, Spain. The competition will host six U-15 boys’ and six U-15 girls’ teams across Europe.

Both days followed a fluid structure of observational drills and skills coaching, accompanied by life and professional skills and teamwork-oriented classes.   

Before the tryouts, the coaching committee, which included Lions’ star captain Shanice Beckford-Norton, General Manager Vanja Cernivec and Jr. NBA tryouts Head Coach Alex Sarama, gathered at London Lions HQ for a debriefing. 

From the very beginning of the discussions, the importance of creating a safe environment for the children was explicitly outlined by Alex Sarama, as it was identified that many of the players would be feeling nervous undertaking such an opportunity to represent the London Lions and the U.K. at the Jr. NBA level.

“When we look at the traditional in the basketball world, kids come into it very nervous and apprehensive, and part of what we're doing here is trying to change the basketball culture and landscape to show what the opposite looks like and bring a contemporary approach to basketball.”
- Alex Sarama

Several questions were asked during the debriefing with an emphasis on positively impacting the participants. These included, what makes a good tryout, what makes an effective tryout and how the children would feel upon entering the tryouts:

“In our debrief meetings, one of the first things we did was I asked the coaches to put themselves in the shoes of the kids and think about what it was like when we were younger, playing for a lot of us. How did it feel for us when we went to tryouts? When I did tryouts [as a youth], I got cut once, and it was tough because basketball was my life, and I didn't know what else there was.

I remember going into the environment and being nervous because the coaches were strict. They weren't smiling. They were yelling at me. It was a culture where you were ashamed if you made a mistake. And that's not what we're doing at Lions.”
- Alex Sarama
Alex Sarama & Vanja Cernivec

Following the meeting, the well-prepared committee headed over to the University of East London, where the tryouts took place and continued deliberate and fine-tune their approach.

“I've never been a part of a meeting so thorough as that. The coaches sat together for hours and discussed what we would do. And then we came back, had lunch, came back again, and spoke about it again. [When we] arrived at the venue, nearly three hours before we were supposed to be here and continued to talk about it. So, we put a lot of time, planning, energy and effort into the drills.”
- George Vaz Rosha, an assistant youth coach with the London Lions and recent graduate of the Lions' International Coaching Development Programme.
George Vaz Rosha

After arriving at the venue, the participants were placed into six mixed-gender groups to get them acclimated with each other. This was followed by quick rotating drills created to review how quickly the participants would react to different game situations. 

The Women’s British Basketball League has gained more visibility over the past eight to nine months due to the domestic and continental success of the London Lions’ women’s team. The knock-on effect of this saw a higher number of Jr. NBA applications from young girls:

“The participation numbers for girls were through the roof, and it's so rare that we would see that [as] it's mostly a male-dominated space. I think what that comes down to is many things.

Number one is the success of the London Lions’ WBBL team. And I think having those role models, Shanice [Beckford-Norton] and Holly [Winterburn], and being able to see them playing in the FIBA EuroCup, at that level, I think that creates something completely different for the girls.” 
“And then two, I think all the research shows in sports participation if you create an environment which is fun, where you're not showering at players, but you're letting them explore, and it's a positive environment, girls are going to come.”

The presence of Shanice Beckford-Norton, a 2022 Commonwealth silver medallist who led the Lions to four titles over the past season, was a confidence booster for all the children:

“One of the unique things about London Lions is that kids need to see what it looks like for their role models to get to the next level of basketball. They need to see what that looks like.

And I think that's one of the most amazing things we can have Shanice as a player coming into this. The girls and the boys get coached by an individual playing at the top level from the same neighbourhood that some of them have grown up in. 
- Vanja Cernivec

Shortly after completing the drills, the young hoopers were split into two groups according to gender. One group remained in the gym, whereas the other attended a ‘Life Skills’ session with Shanice Beckford-Norton and Lions’ award-winning sports therapist Wura Ijelu

During the session, Shanice Beckford-Norton and Wura Ijelu covered what it takes to look after one’s body, what it takes to be a professional basketball player, what success could look like for the Jr. NBA participants and how best to overcome the challenges they may face. Although the children were attentive, Wura Ijelu found that many lacked self-confidence:

“The sessions were active, and it was amazing to witness so much engagement, but I found that many lacked self-confidence. But that was okay because this class was created to help build their confidence.”
- Wura Ijelu

The “What it’s like to be a professional basketball player?” talks, led by London Lions captain Shanice Beckford-Norton, was composed of five pillars of knowledge:

  • PROactive:
    Taking the initiative upon oneself and not waiting to be told.
  • PROcess:
    Understanding that real success doesn’t happen overnight. 
  • PROgress:
    Appreciating each step taken along one’s journey and improving daily.
  • PRObability:
    Understanding that not everything will work out as planned. 
  • PROmises:
    The importance of staying committed to one’s cause and the pacts one makes with oneself.

These points were outlined to help the participants understand the essential steps that need to be taken to maintain a successful basketball career at both the amateur and professional levels. 

Each coach worked diligently to deliver a fantastic basketball experience for the participants and accomplished all the goals that were set. 

“We delivered one of the best youth events we've ever had. The kids learnt they had fun, and they played basketball the right way. As coaches, we felt like we hit all those points in a great way.”

The success of the two-day trials, attracting over 200 people, is yet another example that basketball in London and the U.K. is on the verge of an explosion that will impact many generations. 

“We had over 200 boys and girls from all over London, and even the U.K. attend the trials. I think it shows the appetite for basketball in the U.K. that we all talk about. This shows the potential there, and the kids want to play. There are incredible kids who have amazing potential. It’s just a case of them being in the right environments where they can thrive and fulfil that potential.”

The top 12 players selected for each team will be invited back to participate in 3-day pre-tournament practices in London, ahead of the European Finals, on June 17th-19th.


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