Ken Nottage on his career dilemma before becoming a Sunderland & England basketball star

Originally published on SportsByte on September 15th, 2014.

Ken Nottage was a basketball star in the 80s and 90s, rising to prominence in Milton Keynes before moving to Sunderland, going on to claim over 50 caps for England.

He was the only English player to top the scoring charts in the English League and, after a 19-year career, he held the individual appearance record, having played over 400 games.

But it all very nearly didn’t happen.

Nottage was playing for Milton Keynes side Embassy All Stars when Sunderland coach Tom Becker asked him to join the current league champions. Nottage was 20-years-old and a Junior Systems Engineer, but he was widely-tipped to play for England.

“When I got the offer from Sunderland, it was a big, big decision,” says Nottage.

“I was worried that I would get to 40 and forever wonder if I could play for England. So I decided to step over the line, and I was going to do everything I could to get me to where I wanted to be.

“So, I gave up my job, I went and studied sport, played sport and went to Sunderland and had a fantastic time.”

Studying a Sports Studies joint degree between Northumbria University and Sunderland Polytechnic, Nottage first started playing basketball in Sunderland in the 1980-81 season. He was there for four years, then left for Solent Stars, and later came back for another stay on Wearside.

Nottage was a hugely cherished player for Sunderland, playing in both of their play-off final wins at Wembley in 1981 and 1983.

One of his great strengths was his ability to have an impact from the bench. At Sunderland, despite feeling that he was doing enough in training, he was told by Tom Becker that he was good at coming off the bench and injecting energy into the game.

In his second spell with the club, Sunderland were going through the financial difficulties which would eventually see them controversially uprooted to Newcastle and then sold, and eventually renamed as the Eagles.

He was asked to stay with the club at a time when they struggling to hold on to star names and had been bouncing around the bottom of the league for a few seasons. Sponsors were pulling out and interest in the team was dwindling.

Nottage agreed to stay and, now in his 30s, he was asked to convert to a scorer after playing as a guard for most of his career. But in that season, in 1992, Nottage was the top scorer in the league.

He no longer holds the incredible scoring and appearance records, but that is hardly surprising given that he retired in 1995 and, as he himself says, the game of basketball has advanced considerably.

“The style of play is much more… what I call “street ball”. It’s up and down, it’s fast and furious.

“Whereas in my day we would have a playbook, with different plays that we would run. Now, there’s so many fast, athletic players, I don’t think they know any plays.”

The city remains close to his heart, even though he has – over the years – worked at the Newcastle Eagles, Gloucester Rugby Club and, now, at Three Counties Showground near Worcester.

“On my first day in Sunderland, I met somebody who is now my wife, and we’ve been married for 30 years.

“I’ve played in 20 countries, met a lot of very good friends, and had a wonderful time.

“I think the one special ingredient at Sunderland was the supporters. They were very passionate about Sunderland. Very protective. And it’s such a friendly area. So friendly that I married one of them.”

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