Brixton basketball star Justin Robinson left frustrated by wait for his sport to emerge from lockdown measure

BY SAM SMITH

Having seen elite football, tennis and cricket return following lockdown, Justin Robinson feels the inferior treatment of basketball encapsulates the racial prejudice the sport has suffered for decades.

The British Basketball League season is finally set to commence on October 30. Talks with the Government Department for Culture, Media and Sport over funding postponed the beginning of the season by almost a month.

And South Londoner Robinson, who plays as a guard for London Lions, believes there should be no debate over the funding of a sport that boasts the second-highest amount of participants in the country.

“We all know the huge bias around basketball, it’s nothing new,” said the 33-year-old, who made his debut for Great Britain in 2009. “It’s been that way for decades, decades and decades.

“There is definitely a racial undertone in terms of basketball being a black-dominated sport being played by minorities and kids from the inner-city.

“Maybe the government don’t see it as an important sport. If that is the case then it’s very unfortunate.

“I’m not sure what went on with the government talks but they have finally given us some funding. It should be a no-brainer. Basketball is the second-biggest sport in the UK in terms of participation.

“Is it because the sport is played by minorities? Or by kids in the inner-city? I don’t know. That’s a whole other topic. It’s frustrating to hear, ‘they’re not giving basketball any money.’ It should be a no-brainer for the government to want to keep it alive.

“If football is allowed, why isn’t basketball? Are footballers immune to corona[virus]? It doesn’t make sense.

“Football is a contact sport and so is basketball. We’re in a strange time right now in terms of what is allowed and what isn’t.

“[There are] so many kids taking it up on the streets, some who have found a family in their club teams. I’m just thankful that they have given the money and that we can continue the season. Sports centres can now stay open and kids can have that outlet.”

Robinson grew up in Brixton, an area of South London he describes as a “no-go” for anyone who lived elsewhere in the 1980s and 1990s.

“The reputation made people stay away,” he said. “The crack epidemic, police brutality, there were so many issues going on.”

But Robinson also speaks of a positive sense of community and people always looking out for each other. It was also where he first came across Jimmy Rogers while playing for Brixton Topcats.

Rogers, who founded the Topcats, is one of the icons commemorated by Basketball England in a recent article celebrating Black History Month. He passed away in 2018 but is credited with having a big impact on the careers of Robinson and other high-profile basketball players such as Luol Deng and Matthew Bryan-Amaning.

Robinson believes stories of icons closer to home “hits harder” when learning about Black History.

“I would love for some of these key figures in the black community to be put on the school curriculum and to be taught as black British history,” he says. “That would be amazing. You can learn about all these things in the world about black history but when you’re speaking about people from your own area who have had an impact on your life, it hits harder.

“In the Brixton area, Jimmy Rogers is everything. He saved thousands of lives. I don’t think anyone can fill those shoes but those names have to be put on a pedestal. Things have to be put at the forefront. We have to make a change within our own community. We can’t wait for the government and we can’t wait for the police.

“Someone like Jimmy, he took the bull by the horns and he made change. He took the initiative, he made a basketball club in 1981 with the riots happening, in such a crazy time. He used that club as a tool to save so many lives. It’s so important to have someone like that.

“The way I see it, I’ve never actually left Brixton Topcats. People will say: ‘I went to Topcats from this year to this year,’ but with me I have never left. Brixton for me is everything, it is my family. It was a place to go and train hard. Jimmy’s motto was ‘we never turn any child away’.

“Lawyers, barristers, models, NBA players, NFL players, you name it, the Brixton area has produced it. We took a big loss losing Jimmy but there are people now who are holding his methods intact. They’re keeping those same traditions and ideologies that Jimmy brought to the club.

“I understand why [Brixton] had that bad reputation but there were some great people. Jimmy Rogers is a prime example, I played for his club that basically saved my life. It was a community within a community. They embraced me, they took me in, they showed me the way. I had older women and guys as mentors. Brixton was bad but it also has community.”

Robinson wants to follow in Rogers’ footsteps, despite admitting that they are difficult shoes to fill.

He says he is taking steps to pursue mentoring youngsters once his playing career finishes, but admits he also wants to see more help from the government for children in the most deprived areas.

“It’s a walking contradiction. They want crime to go down and for the youth to do better, but what are you giving the youth to engage them and to keep them occupied?

Jimmy Rogers

“Many of these kids are so talented, all they need is that opportunity and that window to realise what their talent is. If I were the government, you have to invest in the youth, you have to invest in communities and grassroots stuff. The kids are the future of this country. There is a huge disconnect between government and what’s going on in real life.

“I’ve been doing it for so long now unofficially – mentoring kids, I coach, I help out with Brixton Topcats and I’m on the board and the committee. I don’t see it as a chore, it’s something I naturally do. These kids are me and I am them.

“I see them in myself – I speak like them, I act like them, I’ve gone through the exact same things that they have gone through. It’s just like speaking to a little brother or sister.

“I feel like I’ve lived about five different lives, going to America and then across Europe, so I feel like I have so many gems to give to them. It would be very selfish of me to hold in all this life experience so it’s something that I’m super passionate about.

“If I could save one child, I’ve done my job. I want to start one-on-one mentorship with young people and athletes but using basketball as the tool.”

 


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