Postcards from Africa: Jimmy Rogers

Although he fell in love with the game as a child in the 1950s and enjoyed playing basketball as a young adult, he realized early on that the only way he could be more effective in growing the sport in his home country was through coaching. He has had a significant impact on the development of the game in Britain ever since. Recognized for his successful Brixton Topcats basketball club in South East London, United Kingdom, Jimmy Rogers’ most famous pupil is Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng. The South Sudanese’s star has been shining bright as he leads the Bulls this season and will play in his second straight NBA All-Star Game this weekend. Where did it all start for Jimmy and Luol? “Luol may have not been the most talented player I have ever seen, but he has worked harder than anyone else” said Jimmy.

“I started playing basketball in Newcastle upon Tyne (United Kingdom). It was in the early 1950s. At the time I was an orphan living in an orphanage. I’d never seen a black person. I’d never seen my parents and I didn’t know where I was born. The irony is I fell in love with basketball, an American game, only to find out later that my father was American. And in those days, as you can imagine, nobody played basketball. But I was in love with it,” recalled Jimmy on that freezing evening during my visit to the Topcats Academy in mid-January earlier this year. The Brixton Topcats train twice a week and even though the weather was severe in the UK the week we met, the numbers were encouraging. “We used to get the house packed here. I started the Topcats in 1981 and the club has been going strong ever since. I have seen some great talent at the club and over the years sent 38 players to the States, men and women, including Deng.”

So, how did he get into coaching? “I joined the armed forces and went to Germany. I played basketball there, but also had my first exposure to coaching. My first coach who impacted me was nowhere near an Englishman though. It was a Turkish guy who spoke poor German, no English, and I spoke no German when I met him. He was my first coach and he was really good. Then I said to myself, if I had known this earlier, I’d have been much more effective. I came back to England, did some courses and started coaching. And I was quite adamant that I was not going to be just a black coach.” Jimmy paused for a moment and looked around the two courts of the Brixton Recreation Centre we were sitting at. Some of the kids were already in and the courts were quickly filling up. “I was going to be a darn good coach” he added. “Ronnie Baker, he stopped playing only three years ago, has been the most capped player in England ever and I have had privilege to work with him throughout the years.” At that point Jimmy waved to Ronnie who was working with kids on the other side of the court. As if knowing we were talking about him, Ronnie waved back with a smile. I could tell straight away Jimmy had a real passion for what he was doing. There was something special about this place where the name of Luol Deng still brings inspiration for all of these young boys and girls.

“After I came back to England in the late 1960s, I went to Liverpool. Liverpool had a strong mixed race community and I started coaching basketball. With immediate success” he added without any hesitation. Jimmy is a confident man and he tells it as it is. I really enjoyed his company. “I came to London in the early 1980s, was headhunted and ended up with a top team in the country, Crystal Palace. Crystal Palace went down to Division 1 in the late 1980s and I still remember we scored 158 points in our (Topcats) first league game against the Palace.”

And when did he realise that one of his guys may become one of the strongest players out there, competing in the NBA on the other side of the Atlantic? “He came to us when he was 10. His brother Ajou was more talented, but a colleague of mine came to me and said: ‘You know what, he could be better than Ajou.’ ‘You think so?’ I said. And you know, Ajou was 6-10. My colleague just said: Look at his (Luol’s) work ethic.”

“I have seen a lot of talented players and a lot of them wasted their time. But Luol was different. You know why he has made it to the NBA? When I came back from the States once, and I go to the States for the (NCAA) Final Four every year since 1984 and bring all kinds of stuff you could not get here, like weighted jackets and weighted balls, I brought a weighted jacket with me that time. I thought ‘the first guy I see in the gym, I’m going to give it to him.’ Luol thought it was brilliant. He asked if I wanted him to bring it to the next practice, but I just asked ‘Why don’t you wear it? Take it to school.’ That was in early April and he was only 11. That week, it was half-term and our facilities here (in Brixton) were in use, so we had to go practice in Streatham. Streatham is four and a half miles away from where he lived. The first day of the camp Luol was late. And Luol was never late, ever. So, he came in and I asked: ‘How are you Luol?’ – Already giving him a hard look. He said: ‘I’ve lost my travel pass.’ I knew his father could not afford it, so I wanted to give him some money to get a new one. He refused and I forgot all about it. Years later he makes it to the NBA and he came back to speak to the kids here in Brixton. ‘So, you’re going to ask me how I’ve made it to the NBA?’ He pointed at me and said, ‘I came late to the camp one day and he saw me. I had lost my travel ticket. Coach offered to pay for a new one, but I said no. I ran to practice, 4.5 miles, for a month, at 11 (years old), every day.’ And that’s why Luol is in the NBA. He has worked so hard, harder than anyone else I’ve seen.”

“I went to Chicago to the Bulls four years ago. I spoke to John Paxson and he said Luol was the first one to come and the last one to leave. That’s why he is in the NBA.”

Jimmy has been very much engaged in assisting young players in developing their basketball passion, while often also utilising his connections to assist some of them with school and college scholarships in the U.S. “I had a good connection with Blair Academy where he went. I never saw him play in college, apart from TV. He was on the phone with me from the Alamodome to tell me he was leaving. I was looking at him, I was phoning him on the internet you know, but he said not to say anything yet, because he had to tell his father first. But then, when he was drafted and was asked where was the hardest, Blair Academy, Duke or the NBA trials he attended, he said that it was not even close. “Jimmy Rogers at Brixton. No one ever gave me hell like he did.”

What does he think about the available talent in Africa? “I would start an academy. They are so talented, it’s just ridiculous. How could the NBA help? I think people in Africa need to see the game because they are often basketball illiterate. But, oh my God, I’m telling you, the talent available there is great. And their size… (smiling). And they haven’t even looked at the women yet. I would start with the women.”

Jimmy Rogers has been a tough teacher and coach who has had a tremendous impact, and not just on the Brixton community. Many international young players living in England, some of them from Africa, like Luol Deng, have taken their first basketball steps in Brixton. And although many would admit that Jimmy is not a man easy to please, his set of values, disciplined coaching, passion for the game and for the young souls who often looked up to his leadership, have made the Brixton community and English basketball better.

I remember, when Luol visited Rwanda, Tanzania, Angola and South Africa last summer, he was often wearing a Brixton Topcats jersey. What a testament to his humble beginnings in South East London, so far away from the spotlights of the United Center in Chicago. When Luol Deng was running those four and a half miles to practice many years ago, Michael Jordan was leading the Bulls to their fourth NBA Championship. In the 21st century, it is now Luol who leads the Bulls out on the court every night. Luol’s hard work has gotten him to his second NBA All-Star appearance and the whole world will be watching. Certainly, Chicago is not Brixton, and the Bulls are not the Topcats. But without the Topcats, one could wonder where the Bulls would be now?