Sam Lewis’ shot barely grazed the gold rim at The Regal basketball court. He was working on his form, hitting nothing but net from just in front of the free throw line, perfecting the boring stuff.
It was the second consecutive day the 6’3 guard had travelled the hour from Wood Green, across London, to Lambeth. But the opportunity to play basketball for free on one of the best indoor courts in the country was worth the trip.
Sam said: “There’s not many places to play closer to home. I only found out about this place earlier this week and saw that they were offering free sessions so I came back again today.”
The extra availability of free hours at the Regal was because it was NBA London week. According to Community Manager Jason Henley, the site added 25 extra hours of free access – just turn up and do your thing. He said: “The most important thing about what we do here is the removal of finances and the cost of basketball. We know hiring out courts can be expensive, so we want to remove that but still give people first-class facilities.”
To UK-based hoop fans, this is a unheard of. Free access to an indoor, elite-quality basketball court that doesn’t confuse its visitors with segregated sections for badminton, netball, five-a-side football and any other sport that needs a roof – it might not exist elsewhere in the country.
Jason explained: “We can’t be replicated nationally in the amount of free basketball we give. Newcastle has a great big new community stadium that I’m sure will have some element of free basketball but why there’s not more of it? We’re purpose basketball, we don’t have badminton lines all over it. If it was a multi-purpose gym, that would be an issue. We are basketball. That’s the difference. Whereas, I think a lot of centres like UEL, they’ve got lovely courts but it’s multi-use.”
That’s not to say you can’t play other sports on the 2.5-acre Black Prince Community Trust site. PowerLeague rents the AstroTurfed football cages, and there is a community centre available. So even if the courts are only used for basketball, the council aren’t complaining about the Regal’s lack of variety. Jason said: “We’ve never had any pushback because if they ever did that, we would then push back the numbers of usage of the basketball courts. We get more use in the hours we have for basketball than we would for two people playing badminton. That is more engaging in the community. We all know about basketball participation figures in young people from socio-economic backgrounds, that’s how we combat things like that. People are fully aware, all the local authorities, this is the heart of community basketball in London.”
That’s the key to everything The Regal represents: community. To get there, you walk through council-built blocks that could be considered unsafe if you walked through them alone at night. But you stroll around the corner and instead of seeing a clearing with a bench, or a park that is barely used by local families, The Regal appears. And under Jason’s management, it reaches out to everyone in the local area, on top of boasting semi-regular visitors from as far as Edinburgh.
Ade Balogun of the On Court Off Court podcast said: “The Regal is based in Kennington, which is where we have lived pretty much our whole lives. Being so close meant that it has been one of the staples for us to play ball and so when we started the podcast we thought it only made sense to go and speak to those in charge and let them know what we started.
“Jason provided space within the premise of Black Prince Trust (the home of The Regal) for us to record the podcast on multiple occasions, which has been very valuable.”
But The Regal does more than just provide space to record. Ade explained that Jason has helped the OCOC crew to build their brand. He said: “Being involved with Regal Basketball has really helped us develop a greater understanding of the value of partnerships and the importance of both parties doing their utmost to support the other in achieving their goals.”
The Regal is doing its own fair share of growing: it recently featured in a Washington Post feature by Candace Buckner and it used the NBA London week as an opportunity to enhance the brand. Jason said: “On Tuesday we had the Jr NBA event. We had multiple NBA legends, local schools, other schools from Birmingham that wouldn’t necessarily always get the opportunity to use the court, so that was really cool. Our main focus was that we didn’t want the NBA London game to diminish what we’re doing here, we wanted it to enrich what we’re doing here, so we extended our open basketball hours and had visitors from Germany, France, Italy, Japan – the guy from Japan was crazy about it. And we’ve seen a noticeable increase in the presence of the Chinese community basketball fans.”
The brand will continue to grow, and the The Regal will continue to improve. Next to the main room, the Jordan Court stands as a shrine to the GOAT. It features murals of Michael Jordan, prints of his most famous pictures on the wall and quotes around the room. It is smaller, a bit dusty, and while it doesn’t attract the footfall it once did since the main court opened up, there is a charm to it that can’t be replicated. Jason said: “The Jordan Court will be our next area of focus. Even though it looks urban and rough and ready, for us it’s about providing first-class facility.”
Back in the main gym, Sam was still working on his game, having moved to a different spot on the court to keep nailing his shot. Even though the 26-year-old was in between teams at the time, his dream of playing in Europe meant that he needed to keep growing his game, and The Regal was the best place to do this within 100 miles – with a beautiful floor devoid of any dead spots, backboards that can support the weight of 20-stone dude dunking on them, and a motif throughout the court that is topped of by golden snapback rims.
The rest of the court had filled out, with some one-on-ones taking place, and enough players lacing up in the bleachers to put together a full scrimmage. There was no one taking charge, just people coming together organically to play free of charge, which is exactly what basketball is all about. You could mistake it for any elite court in the United States, but it’s tucked away in a Lambeth council block, and it’s one that any UK baller should visit when they get the chance.You might find yourself going back the very next day.