If you know basketball, you know that springtime is playoff season. And at London Thunder, that means every year at this time the club is gearing up for a run to the Final Fours. This season, for the first time in club history, Thunder has three teams competing in the postseason.
The players and coaches are excited to begin.
“In the playoffs, the teams get better,” Thunder U18 player Mohamed Fofanah said. “The plays, everything is quicker, everything is better. There's definitely more excitement, there's definitely more nervousness. All of it. There's definitely more in the playoffs. It's nothing like the regular season.”
The players on the boys U14, U16 and U18 teams were eager — and a little nervous — as they prepared at the Thunderdome last week. After a successful regular season, they know that the competition is greater and the stakes are higher.
“I get more excited because you get to play against better teams from the different leagues,” U14 player Zion Dapaah said. “It's very exciting.”
Along with the excitement comes added pressure. But for players who have been trained all season under London Thunder coaches, they are mostly just ready to get out on the court.
U18s player Michael Adebayo has been feeling the nerves that come before big games, but says that they won’t last.
“I feel that when we start playing, (the nervousness) goes away,” Adebayo said. “We've come here to play. You can’t really get too worried about the crowd or be scared of what other people might think of us on the court.”
Over the course of the season, the teams have learned the strengths — and some weaknesses — that they will focus on in practices to prepare to advance as far as possible.
Before they can address the specifics, however, head coach Steve Bucknall has a message to all players: one of the most important steps is to be at every practice.
“I think it is important getting all the players, and I mean all the players, who are competing for a spot down to training, working with each other and preparing themselves for that playoff run,” Bucknall said.
Some of the players have heard this message from the coaches and taken it to heart. U18 player Joshua Ayodele Adeniyi emphasized the importance of being at practice and being sharp.
“(The coaches’) main focus is to get everyone at training, and have the right mindset when we are training so that when it comes to playoffs everyone will be focused and we will be able to perform to the best of our ability,” Adeniyi said.
When it comes to game time, Bucknall acknowledges that playoff games carry a little more weight. While the club has regularly advanced teams to the Final Fours, to win a championship the players have to sustain their highest level of intensity for a long stretch of time. All of the coaches have been emphasizing the need for players to step it up for every game.
“Just stay alert and stay at your level, that’s what they’ve been saying.” Fofanah said.
Years of success have given those at London Thunder a right to have confidence going into the postseason.
“We are hoping to win it all, to be honest,” U18 player Kenny Godwin said. “We feel like we’ve got a lot of good pieces, everybody does their role and we feel like it’s a realistic goal.”
Coach Peter Lang emphasized that the experience surrounding the playoffs can be a unique and exciting one for players. For those that are in their first playoffs, he hopes that they can shake off the fear factor and enjoy the experience.
“My expectation for the team is we hopefully can play the full bench, we have a good time, and we come out with a pink slip,” Lang said.
The path to the playoffs is a long one, and while the coaches want the players to appreciate the experience, they also don’t want them to forget what it took to get there.
Though some of the players are new to the program, many have been with the club for years. The coaches hope that no matter how long a player is with the program, they consistently develop their game.
“I think it’s more of a longer journey,” Bucknall said. “We didn’t know what the expectations were at the beginning of the seasons. We just wanted to be the best teams that we could put on the floor and compete. And I think we've done that this year. Consistently over the last how many years, seven or eight years, we’ve been consistent with that.”
While the club puts emphasis on winning the games, the process and progress involved are even more important. And in that process, the players build the bonds they need to play as a team. Between teammates and even beyond individual teams, everyone at London Thunder builds relationships and benefits from the pursuit of excellence.
“Across all teams (at Thunder), there is a bond,” Godwin said. “Everyone is close to each other. No one hates each other; it’s like a family. I've noticed that across all teams from as young as under-12s all the way to under-18s. Across all London Thunder teams, it’s all one family.”
Thank you to coaches Fernando Angulo, Nestor Diaz, Peter Lang and Steve Bucknall
As well as players TJ Hibbert, Kenny Godwin, Michael Adebayo, Joshua Ayodele Adeniyi, Mohamad Fofanah, Jonathan Mbanefo, Sofiane Dehiles and Zion Dapaah for their contributions for this story.