This article accompanies Michael Romyn’s article ‘For them it was just a game but for us it was more’: Black Identity and the Making of Basketball in Urban Britain’ in History Workshop Journal issue 93, where it is currently free access.
Since 2010, cuts to local authority funding have overseen the decimation of youth services in England and Wales. At least 760 youth centres and 4,500 youth workers have disappeared in this period; London alone has lost more than 130 youth centres and projects. Predictably, the closures have hit young people from deprived areas the hardest, and have disproportionately affected Black and minority groups, for whom youth provision in England has always been thin on the ground. As a focus of political and media attention, discussion of the cuts has tended to cleave to well-worn narratives about youth violence and criminality. Rather than centering the profoundly damaging effects of austerity politics on young people, these responses foregrounded a set of essentialist, stigmatising and often racist urban imaginings.
As Gus John pointed out in 1981, youth provision – in all manner of guises – provides local spaces in which marginalised and racialised young people can attempt to respond to and resist the oppressions they face daily. At a time of life when identity is thrown into sharpest focus, it can help young men and women build positive conceptions of themselves and each other, and in turn diminish or reject incriminatory conceptions attached to them by wider society. In inner urban Britain, such spaces have typically, and often necessarily, been forged through the Black self-help movement: where need was not met – or indeed was created – by the state, a whole host of figures from Black communities stepped in to fill the gap. It’s a history that demands a wider telling, and one that can be traced across numerous settings, schemes, stories, and pursuits, not least of which – as the example of basketball demonstrates – is sport.
In August 1985, Michael Jordan, who had just completed a spectacular debut season for the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association (NBA), visited the newly-opened Brixton Recreation Centre in south London as part of a promotional tour for his latest shoe, the Air Jordan 1. The event, which was captured on film, also marked the official launch of the Brixton Topcats basketball club; in an improbable coup for the grassroots organisation, the club had entered into a partnership with Nike, Jordan’s primary sponsor (and creator of the Air Jordan 1).
As the film shows, Jordan’s visit included instructional sessions for young players, and a series of exhibition matches with members of the Topcats’ senior squad. The footage is in many ways remarkable. Jordan’s artistry and athleticism are on full display, but so too does the film give a sense of the community and aspiration that the club was attempting to build. Paul Ambrosius, who was a junior coach and player on the senior side at the time, is shown remarking on the event: ‘It was nice to see all the little ones with their eyes wide open and, you know, seeing a positive thing for a change down here.’
The story of the Topcats began in May 1981, when basketball coach Jimmy Rogers and his friend Courtenay Griffiths founded New ERA (the New Educational and Recreation Association) in response to the scarcity of Black-led and centred youth provision in south London, particularly in the wake of the 1981 ‘riots’. Rogers was a key figure in the UK’s Black self-help movement. Until his death in 2018, he used basketball to mentor generations of young Black men and women, many of whom, through his clubs, discovered a counterbalance to the isolation, inequality, and hostility they experienced daily, often in the form of heavy-handed policing; after finding a permanent home in Brixton, New ERA changed its name to ‘Topcats’ after the eponymous cartoon character, Top Cat, who was perpetually harassed by the police.
Jordan’s visit to Brixton in 1985 offers a window not only onto the beginnings of what was, in the Topcats, a mainstay of belonging, resilience, and self-empowerment for many young Black people in south London, but also onto the emerging place of basketball within British cities at that time. My article ‘For them it was just a game but for us it was more’: Black Identity and the Making of Basketball in Urban Britain’, published in issue 93 of History Workshop Journal, considers how basketball was transformed in the late 1970s and 80s from an overwhelmingly white, middle-class pursuit, to a distinctly Black and urban British subculture. Facilitated by a nexus of commercial practices, consumerist culture, and transatlantic cultural flows, drawn in particular from Black America, basketball, by the 1990s, was played by a disproportionate number of Black people in disadvantaged urban areas. In Jordan’s encounter with the Topcats, we see an early example of how the NBA and its ‘global partners’ (such as Nike) mobilized ‘grassroots’ initiatives to gain a foothold within the British marketplace. But the episode also helps explain how basketball became a source of interest, expression and identity-construction for many young Black people.
As Ambrosius commented in the film, Jordan’s visit and the launch of the Topcats was for him a rare ‘positive thing’ to happen in Brixton; in contrast to the unequal treatment that many young people in the area encountered in school, and in other forms of youth provision, including established basketball clubs, the community-led Topcats were an uncommon ray of light. Ambrosius himself well understood the power of Black-led social provision amid a hostile and exclusionary environment. Growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s and 60s, he inhabited, for the best part of his formative years, a world of poverty, rejection and racist violence. It was only when he was introduced to basketball by Jimmy Rogers in 1969, aged 15, did he find, in his own words, a means of ‘survival.’
By tracing the stories of Ambrosius and others, my article further explores the formative role Black coaches, players, clubs and initiatives had on many young men and women from the 1970s onwards. Considered against a backdrop of entrenched inequalities and public anxieties over ‘Black urban life’, it looks at how basketball shaped patterns of endurance and resilience in certain urban locales. The extraordinary impact basketball has had on Black and minority ethnic communities has not gone completely unnoticed — in 2014, an All-Party Parliamentary Group inquiry recognised the sport’s importance to young people, ‘particularly amongst the deprived, and in the inner cities.’ But despite this recognition, and despite basketball’s considerable popularity – it’s the second most popular team sport in England – the game has been consistently ignored and underfunded, both at an elite level and, crucially, at the grassroots. When considering current and historical political and policy approaches to Black youth cultures and identities in Britain, as well as the staggering cuts to youth services more generally, this paucity of investment perhaps comes as no surprise.
Michael Romyn is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at QMUL. His first book, London’s Aylesbury Estate: An Oral History of the ‘Concrete Jungle’, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020.