|13 February 2004|
By Kirstie Lovewell, PA International
Ockelbo is an area better known for its wild strawberries, but the inhabitants of this Swedish town have more recently developed a taste for the unlikely pastime of basketball.
The small community of just 6,000 inhabitants is north of Stockholm. Famous for its outstanding natural beauty, the area has now claimed its place on the sporting map with a highly successful basketball team complete with band of devoted supporters.
In fact, demand for tickets has been so high the club are preparing to test their popularity with a one-off move to a larger arena, which can seat everyone in the area.
Ockelbo BBK has leapt to the forefront of Swedish basketball following promotion to the elite league at the end of the 2002-3 season.
Success has also captured the imagination of the locals with their 800-capacity Kuxahallen arena regularly sold out.
Now Ockelbo will be looking to increase their crowd almost eight-fold when they entertain Sallen on February 20 at the 7,000-seater Gavlerinken.
"The move is just for one match," the club`s vice chairman Johan Stark explained.
"Basically it`s a big PR event to attract the community and and help further promote the sport in the area."
And the decision already appears to have worked. Unsurprisingly, tickets for the game against neighbouring rivals Sallen have proved popular and the match is already a sell-out.
Basketball took the country by storm last summer when they hosted the European Championships and Stark admits Sweden`s smallest community has become hooked on hoops.
"At the beginning of the eighties the men`s team were promoted to the highest league and it really took the imagination of the community," Stark said.
"It`s just a small community so our success was really celebrated.
"Unfortunately they went straight back down again the following year, but last season the team went up again to the top league.
"Everyone remembers the success of the team from before and still has a love of the sport and is backing the team.
"The young kids have also got involved and enjoy playing basketball. It`s the number one sport in the area," Stark added.
Their second outing in the top flight has proved a far happier affair, and with the team currently fourth in Play-off Group 1, the club has a very realistic chance of challenging for the Swedish Championship.
And having shown this season they can match the might of Plannja and Solna Vikings, can the team see off the big guns and bring the title back to Ockelbo?
Stark remains quietly optimistic.
"A realistic target would be the semi-finals," he said.
"I don`t think we`re good enough to reach the finals yet but you never know as we've beaten most of the big teams this season.
"But we`re a low budget club and to reach the semi-finals would be a great achivement."