Local athletes in the United Kingdom

Catch You on the Rebound

By Curtis J. Phillips, Connect Contributor

Even on holidays, sports is top priority for Connect columnist Curtis J. Phillips, as he stands beside the statue of Welsh boxer Peerless Jim Driscoll. Supplied photo

Even on holidays, sports is top priority for Connect columnist Curtis J. Phillips, as he stands beside the statue of Welsh boxer Peerless Jim Driscoll. Supplied photo

I’m sitting in a restaurant with friends. And, across the street we can see the Tower of London.

Founded in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest, it is still solid as a rock and stands tall.

Also standing tall – and solid as a rock – is an integral part of British basketball history – former Fort McMurrayite Sam Salter.

A graduate of Fort McMurray Composite High School, later earning three all-conference selections playing post-secondary for the Mount Royal Cougars and SAIT Trojans of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC), it was in 1998 that Salter made the trip over the ocean.

“I really wasn’t looking to play (professional basketball) when I came here with a friend who had come over for a tryout,” recalled Salter, now 40 years of age and sitting across from me during my recent weeklong vacation with my wife Diane in the United Kingdom. “I had an opportunity to tryout also and I guess they liked me. I must have impressed them.”

For the next 13 years, Salter – an explosive six-foot guard with exceptional leaping ability – would play for various teams in the British pro basketball league; including the Birmingham Bullets, Kingston Wildcats, London Leopards, London Towers, Manchester Magic, Reading Rockets and Worthing Bears.

He would also earn a paycheque in Finland, Germany and Holland.

Not bad for a kid who grew up in Fort McMurray, which has also produced two other pro hoopsters; Harbir Bains (France) and Janet Hatfield (Germany).

He credits his start here in Fort McMurray as motivation.

“Playing my final year of (high school) basketball for (Fort McMurray Composite High Miners) and beating Westwood (Community High School Trojans) in the Challenge Cup and making the provincial team, showed me that if you push yourself towards a goal and you achieve it, that anything can happen if you work hard.”

Of his introduction to pro hoops in Britain, Salter said: “I didn’t know the calibre and really what to expect at first. The ACAC was a guard- orientated league, so when I came here the guys were a lot bigger, quicker and just as athletic.”

He continued.

“It took me a couple of months to find my way and get used to it and see what I could get away with and what I couldn’t. The pro game here is better than the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) and maybe like a higher NCAA Division II or lower Division I.

The pay scale of a pro basketball player in Britain is nowhere near the nearly $5 million average of the National Basketball Association or the multimillion dollar contracts given out in Spain, Italy, Greece, but for Salter it was never about the money. I love basketball. I love watching it. I love playing it. I love coaching it. I love talking about it,” as evident by our two-hour hoops chat over drinks.

“But there were five or six years where I made enough money to come back home to (Calgary) in the summer with money still in my pockets,” he said.

Salter is humble, in that he does not talk of the moments when game winning free throws or last second three-pointers won his team’s championships.

“To be honest, I probably wasn’t the pro basketball player that I wanted to be,” admits Salter, who like millions others around the globe, now plays recreation basketball.

“But at least I had a chance. I had the opportunity to step up there. I was always in the gym, working out on those extra things to make you better. Pushing myself to the limit, pushing myself to the next level.”

Salter is currently Branch Manager for Hire Station (equipment and tools rentals), which he has worked for 11 years.

Along with his partner Kayla, they have a young son named Jacob.

“He is the baddest kid in the planet right now,” says Salter with a smile on his face. “NBA Lottery pick in 2035. Mark that down. I can’t wait for him to run around so I can work with him on his game, so I can enjoy that second career.”

Believe it or not with a 40-year stint as a Canadian sports journalist, I have never been behind the microphone to do play-by-play for a professional hockey game.

Well, the streak has ended as I had the opportunity to call a few minutes of a British Elite Ice Hockey League game when the Cardiff Devils hosted the Sheffield Steelers at Wales Ice Arena with 3,000 plus thunderous fans in attendance.

My brother-in-law Brian Parker, one of four Calgary-based owners of the Devils, invited us over to the United Kingdom to watch a Devils home game on October 15; and then, to an away fixture in Sheffield, the next day.

The fans are crazier than their Canadian counterparts with their chants and fight songs starting and continuing nonstop 10 minutes prior to the dropping of a puck.

We also had the opportunity to have lunch and supper with the team.

At the home game, former Colorado Avalanche forward Patrick Bordeleau, towering over the fans at 6-foot-6 and the added inches on skates, spent several minutes after warmup allowing a few lucky fans to get their photos with him. You won’t see that in the NHL. Up close and personal.

The UK sports pages feature soccer, more soccer, yet, again, more soccer, some cricket, horse racing, rugby and tennis. No mention of NFL, NHL or MLB.

In Cardiff, I visited the statue of Peerless Jim Driscoll (1890-1925). He’s a Welsh boxer of legend to this very day.

Catch you on the rebound.

– Connect Weekly –