Hoops and dreams: Preston Basketball Club’s Joe Heyes talks big-time ambitions and the UK’s complex relationship with the sport

In 2016, the LA Lakers, one of the planet's most famous sporting brands, made a signing which should have rocked Britain. Putting pen to paper on a four-year contract worth $72m was Luol Deng, a two-time NBA All-Star who immediately became the team's highest-paid player, earning similar wages to Premier League superstars Paul Pogba and Raheem Sterling.

By Jack Marshall
Monday, 21st February 2022, 4:55 am
Joe played basketball at Myerscough College whilst studying (credit: Michael Porter Photography)
Joe played basketball at Myerscough College whilst studying (credit: Michael Porter Photography)

But it caused barely a blip this side of the Atlantic. Despite being Britain's greatest ever basketball player, Deng could likely walk down any street in the UK and go unrecognised, save for his imposing 6'9" frame. Such is the state of basketball in the UK: a sport rich in potential but severely lacking in facilities, in funding, and - to the consternation of many - in cultural acceptance.

"My interest in basketball started in high school," says Preston Basketball Club's Joe Heyes. "We did a bit in P.E. and I really enjoyed it. I've always been involved in sport and I played a lot of football growing up - as one of the bigger lads, I was a centre-back - but I never had that real passion for it. With basketball, I found that passion.

"I started taking my football down to the local basketball hoop to practice and started watching Kobe [Bryant] highlights online," adds the 6'4" Joe, who plays as a small forward or shooting guard. "I was just like 'wow, imagine if I could do that...' My dad bought me a basketball and a net for the backyard and the more I practised, the more I fell in love."

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Joe Heyes during his time at Myerscough College (credit 31andSevenPhotos)

Britain has a complex relationship with basketball. Despite the pre-eminence of football, rugby, and cricket in the British sporting culture, basketball is actually the second-most popular sport in the country in terms of participation, but a lack of funding and the selling-off of facilities as a result of austerity policies over the past 12 years have hampered its development.

Having been financed by Sport England in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, at which Team GB's male and female basketball teams were guaranteed a host nation spot, funding was cut after the Games, a decision former-GB international Kieron Achara cited as an example of 'perspective blindness', adding that funding shouldn't be wholly contingent on medal success.

Some have even pointed to the sport's popularity with members of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities as telling when it comes to funding: in lockdown, the government handed £16m to rugby league to prevent it from collapsing but rejected a £1m bailout request from the British Basketball League, in which 70% of players are from BAME backgrounds.

But, as evidenced by people like Joe, British basketball has developed a thick skin over the years.

Last year, Joe played at British Basketball League side Manchester Giants (credit: Michael Porter Photography)

Born in Manchester and raised in Horwich, Bolton, Joe grew up playing for Preston Pride and Lancashire Spinners, often travelling over an hour just to play the sport he loved. At 15, he was already playing at Under-18s level and landed a spot at Myerscough College to study for a BTech and a Diploma in Sporting Excellence (DiSE) whilst also turning out for the college team.

"From day one, I'd always seen myself going to Myerscough because of its reputation," says Joe, who won the Premier North league, the Under-19s National Schools Championships, and the AOC Knockout Cup during his time at the school. "I'd gone to two or three summer camps there and I fell in love with the place.

"I couldn't think of anything better than an environment where I could get my education as well as elite training," he adds. "It was perfect. I made massive leaps and bounds as a player - it wasn't so much the volume of training, it was the technicality. Everything was drilled down to the finest detail.

"Alex Hodgson [a lecturer and strength and conditioning coach] pretty much taught me everything I know in terms of S&C, too. All I knew was 'go to the gym and lift heavy weights', but he really showed me how to train through functional movement. It was about staying athletic, agile, and flexible."

Joe Heyes warming up at the University of Worcester Arena (credit HCCaptures)

I ask Joe what his ambitions were at this stage, those three life-changing letters - NBA - going conspicuously unsaid.

"My ambition was always to land a scholarship in the States," he admits. "But quickly I realised you're almost given a false narrative as a kid trying to make it in basketball in this country. You're told the only way to progress is to get the scholarship and play in the States but, realistically, throwing all your eggs in that basket isn't a great idea.

"There are so many other options domestically or in Europe," he explains. "There are benefits to staying - I got to study my passion and play at a high level whilst also working towards a career."

With his last few months at Myerscough curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Joe decided to take a year out to work and earn some money before applying for university, where he planned to study physiotherapy. Then he received a message from Danny Byrne, then head coach at British Basketball League side Manchester Giants.

Joe Heyes playing for Preston Basketball Club (credit Michael Porter Photography)

Danny said he'd been following Joe's progress and said he wanted to offer him a place at the Giants. "I said 'sure', not knowing what level he meant," says Joe with a laugh. "When he said 'first team', I just sat there re-reading the message in disbelief. I walked into my mum's room and said 'mum, just read this and make sure I'm getting this right'.

"Being at Giants, I made massive jumps," says Joe. "When you're playing with people who've played at such a high level - players at the top level in the UK and who've played in Europe and at Division One level in the States - it's a brilliant experience. I had to step up and work harder than I ever had done.

"I knew I wasn't coming in to play loads of minutes, it was more of a development year, but the opportunity was one I couldn't turn down," he adds. "And I had to grow up and become a man because I had to match the professionalism of guys with serious CVs, which was a big jump. But it gave me a massive boost in confidence because I kept up with them.

"I thought 'if I keep working harder than everyone else, I'll get to that level if not higher,' and that's what I'm still working towards," continues Joe, who got a job at Sainsbury's to support himself whilst playing. "I only played in four games or so in the BBL, but I scored my first points against London Lions at the Copper Box.

"I'll never forget that: playing against one of the country's biggest teams and becoming Giants' third-youngest points-scorer at 18. I can remember watching the BBL as a kid and saying to my mum 'I want to be there one day'. That's still the aim: to get to that level again."

Turning back to education, Joe was offered the chance to study sports therapy at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and so reached out to his old team, now rebranded as Preston Basketball Club. He spoke to Sam Fitzpatrick, the head coach at Preston, and Craig Wright, the uni team's head coach, and was offered a scholarship.

Joe Heyes playing for Manchester Giants (credit HCCaptures)

"It was a no-brainer - I'm in my first year now and I love it," says Joe, with Preston playing in the National Basketball League Division Three North West conference, the fourth tier of basketball in the UK. "From the beginning, we've all said that we weren't just here to have fun, we wanted to win. The work we've put in has been really rewarding, but we're not finished."

Our chat coming to an end, I ask Joe what the UK needs to do to not only produce more Luol Dengs in the future but to cultivate a sporting culture which cares about them, too.

"Basketball has so much potential, but unfortunately everything comes down to money," he answers. "You look at things like cycling in the Olympics, which we do really well at because we put funding into it. It's no mystery: basketball doesn't get the same recognition because we don't do as well at it, but if we invested in it as a sport, it'd repay us in the long-run.

"We need more franchises and people supporting local teams and going to games, which means better players and more growth in the sport which then filters down," he adds. "In the meantime, I'm still chasing my ultimate goal of playing at the highest level I can reach. That's the main motivation for me."

Preston Basketball Club's Joe Heyes (credit: Michael Porter Photography)