Paul Stimpson is currently responsible for FIBA’s global television contracts. Having been involved in sports television and marketing for the last 15 years he has extensive experience in the field. His experience on the basketball court is pretty extensive too and he was an English national team regular for 12 years.
One of the main achievements of the English side during this period was qualification to the 1981 European Championship in Czechoslovakia, a feat which they have since been unable to repeat. We sat down with Paul to discuss his experiences with the team during this event.
Paul Stimpson on duty for England
Stimpson: Yes, we qualified in Turkey, Istanbul and we beat Turkey. It was really on the back of 1980 when the Great Britain Olympic team was coached by Norm Sloan in the USA. From that the work ethic came, plus the addition of several English-Americans. The Olympic qualifiers took us to a new level in terms of intensity and training, although we didn’t qualify. Then in 1981 we came together, beating Turkey in Istanbul and then we went on to the final round in Bratislava.
Did you expect to qualify?
Stimpson: We thought we’d be in with a shout and we had some close games. Everyone bonded and played really hard and it kind of went from there. It was a tremendous experience in Bratislava although at the end we just basically ran out of steam.
If you look at the scores though, the games were pretty close even if you finished in last place.
Stimpson: Yes, we beat Greece who had Gallis and Yiannakis which was a big win and we lost badly to Spain with San Epifanio, Corbalan and Brabender. We had a tight loss to France who were led by Richard Dacoury. We had a mixture of dual nationals who had been to college in the USA; but we found that for 30 minutes we could play with anybody, but in the last 5-10 minutes we ran out of steam or could not execute when we needed a basket.
So it was more a mental, rather than a physical problem?
Stimpson: Yes, it comes through playing at that level. By the time we got to the classification round in Prague, we were exhausted. We played with a basic rotation of 7-8 guys and a couple of those got injured. We thought we could do well against Turkey, but we ran out of steam and lost by 3. Poland were too strong for us, Germany just beat us but our legs went at the end. It was a tremendous experience though which gave us the taste to play at that level, but unfortunately we didn’t qualify for the next Championship in 1983
How does playing in a European Championship in 1981 compare to now in terms of organisation, media interest and competition?
Stimpson: There’s a huge difference now and for us going there it was a huge step up. In Bratislava the games were not fully attended and there was some television but not back in England. We had one or two journalists that came with us, but when we saw and talked to players from the other teams, we saw what a different league they played in. I think the biggest difference is that at that time there was the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and they were streets ahead of most of the other teams. Spain were strong, but at the end of the day the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were a step ahead. If you look at the European Championship now, there are any one of 12 teams which could get a medal and that is awesome. At that stage players were coming back from playing college basketball in the USA and now it is the next stage up, where players in the NBA are playing for their national teams, which is tremendous and will only boost the sport.
But at that stage all of the English players were playing their club basketball in England?
Stimpson: Yes, it was at the point where they had found players that were born in England and had gone to the USA, or had English parents and come back. We had a situation where we went to Czechoslovakia really not knowing what to expect, for example we had only one pair of sneakers each. When we got there the Adidas rep gave us a new pair of shoes and for us this was like a different world. Watching the finals made us think “this is where we want and need to be”. Our main problem was that because we had English-Americans, some stayed in England, others went back which made it more difficult. Also sometimes they do not have the same pride in the national team, which wasn’t the case in 1981 and part of why we did so well. Nowadays, the very best English players are all abroad, which makes gathering everybody for the national team that much more difficult.
Did playing in a European Championship give you exposure leading to offers to play on the continent?
No, because at that stage, it was just two foreigners and the rest were all national players. So as an Englishman, I would have to go play in France as a foreign player because there everyone had two Americans, so there was no movement of players at all with regards to that. The biggest thing is you make friendships. Yiannakis and I in Greece were both on a European junior camp together and came up and sort of played together. Richard Dacoury the same. And that’s probably the friendships you make over the years, meeting the various people. When I played with the Crystal Palace club we played in Europe every year, so we met the people from Macabbi Tel Aviv and other teams so that was always good. So when you’re on the national team level, there was just no movement because there was no movement around Europe at that stage.
You mentioned that Yugoslavia and the Soviets were a step ahead. In what way?
I think the biggest thing was their size and athleticism. Even in those days, Russia had Tchakenko, Belostenny and they had Mishkin. Mishkin was a very versatile 210 cm forward. They were just a really well drilled team. They were very athletic, very big, played good pressure defense... Just a good team. And Yugoslavia had Kosic as the center and they were just going through a bit of transition, a bad period probably, but again, they played beautiful basketball, moved the ball well. And then Italy, which probably a step below, with the greatest respect to Italy, they were more like a club, but in terms that they would make a couple of players that were scorers and other people had role players, you know Meneghin played and Marzorati.
Had you done much travelling before the Championship?
Yes, I was 21, actually, at the time when it happened, just turning 22. I’d done a lot because from 17, I think, playing with the national team as a junior and then at 19 I started playing with the senior team. So we played in the European championships qualifier, which always seemed to be in Turkey, funnily enough. We qualified in Istanbul for Czechoslovakia for the 1981 Final Round, and when I went to Istanbul for that qualifying, that was like the fourth or fifth that time I’d been in Turkey for a European Qualifying, starting in Antalya or Izmir or Istanbul. So, it was like going home almost. And the year before, the Great Britain team trained out in Florida with Norm Sloan, who was our coach. Then we’d come to Lucerne for the Pre-Olympic Qualifying, which we didn’t make, but which was also an experience.
How was the experience culturally?
To me I loved it. For some of the players on the team, it was kind of different. They were looking for the various channels on TV and there weren’t any. They were looking for some form of entertainment, and there wasn’t any. And I think that’s probably the hardest thing when you actually go to a championship, or you go to a foreign country is to actually keep yourself mentally sharp, ready, and to amuse yourself. People today are obviously listening to music, playing games, whatever. But we used to try to see something of the sights, to educate ourselves a little bit about what was going on in the country. I found the people very friendly. Actually one of the referees in Bratislava was one Lubo Kotleba (FIBA’s current Sports Director), so many years ago. And we always talk about it, the championship, and what have you. But I found it a very trusting experience and not dour and boring at all. You got chatting with some of the players on the other teams. You had practice, and when you got practice in the morning and a game in the evening, there aren’t too many rest days. So, you’ve just really got to look after your body, keep your mental attitude and your brain sharp.