Originally produced for Spark Magazine in September 2014, online and in print.
Sunderland was once regarded as the hotbed of basketball talent in the UK, regularly competing for league, cup and European honours.
With play-off wins in the early 80s and with some of Europe’s most elite squads visiting Wearside, Sunderland were the club that people wanted to play for and pay to watch.
Playing in front of a Crowtree crowd of 5,000 at their peak, Sunderland played under various names including the Saints, Scorpians and SunBlest. But the club ran into financial issues and was moved to Newcastle – where they were eventually named the Eagles.
But now, under the City Predators franchise, national league basketball is set to return to Sunderland.
Led by Brian Calder, a former Sunderland player, the Predators will establish a senior and junior set-up and play their matches at CitySpace on Chester Road. “I hope we can give young players something to be proud of and aspire to”, Calder says.
And, as well as providing a great future for basketball in the city, it is all bringing back great memories of a team steeped in history.
Former England star Ken Nottage first played for Sunderland when he was 21 in 1980 and, despite moves away to various clubs in the 80s, was a mainstay in Sunderland sides in the halcyon days and the darker periods.
Nottage lived with teammate Jim McCauley on Association Road, near Roker Park, with other teammates close by. “We were like brothers”, he says.
“My fondest memories of playing basketball are in Sunderland. That was where I had the most fun.
“I think the club in the early days had got it right. They’d got the business right, they’d got the facilities right, they had great supporters, they recognised the importance of bringing in a good coach. It just all worked.”
When Nottage was in his 30s, Sunderland were coming into the financial difficulties that would eventually see the club sold and become the Newcastle Eagles. He agreed to stay with Sunderland even when they were struggling to hold on to top players, and he was then asked to adapt from playing as a guard to a scorer. That year, he was the league’s top scorer.
“The one thing that was unique with Sunderland was the great support we got at Crowtree and then at the Northumbria Centre,” Nottage says. “And we used to pack them in! We couldn’t get anyone else in – there would just be no room left.
“They were very passionate about Sunderland. Very protective. Sunderland’s a city that loves its sports. And it’s such a friendly area.”
Sunderland achieved their highest league finish in 1982/83, finishing 2nd behind Crystal Palace, but the club’s undoubted highlights were the two play-off wins at Wembley in 1981 and 1983.
Colin Kirkham was the youngest member of the squad when they won their first championship, playing alongside names such as Art Wearren, Jim Brandon and Nottage.
“The Wembley play-offs will always be the special ones. When you’re standing in the tunnel waiting to go out on to the court, it was nerve racking, but once you got out there it was fabulous.
“The support that we had at Crowtree was incredible. The floor was a hard court to play on but it was a great venue for spectators.
“I remember a game we played in Scotland where we had busloads of supporters. The passion of the supporters was second-to-none.”
The team was owned by Dave Elderkin, who, in 1995, controversially uprooted the team and moved them to Newcastle. The then-Newcastle United owner, Sir John Hall, bought the team and added them to his ambitious, Barcelona-esque sporting club plans, but the club was a relative failure. The basketball team was then sold to Ken Nottage and current British Basketball League chairman Paul Blake.
Craig Lynch joined Sunderland in the 90s and went on to coach Sunderland, at a time when they were bringing in big-money signings like Steve Bucknall from the LA Lakers, and then Newcastle Eagles.
“Sunderland was a place where people enjoyed their basketball,” Lynch says. “They had a strong set-up, a lot of support from the [local] council, they had lots of grassroots basketball going on.
“They had players who had been there for a long time and they had kids coming through the school system and playing for the team at a high level. People could associate with that.”
Like their predecessors, the Predators will don the famous red and white colours synonymous with the city. The men’s and women’s teams will begin their National League campaigns later this autumn.
Nottage states that it’s “great to see the team back”, while Lynch says: “You’ve got to get the grassroots right. Sunderland has a great history in basketball and with the right people involved, it can definitely be successful.”
Kirkham adds: “When the team left Sunderland I thought a new team would come in straight away, but when that didn’t happen I thought that was it. Nothing would change from then.
“I never thought another team would come in after all this time. But I can definitely see this new team being a success. Especially if they get that support going.”