Written by Stuart Hodge – @Hodgeythehack
Today, all the talking stops and it’s time to go out and deliver.
That’s the attitude the Caledonia Gladiators are adopting ahead of the British Basketball League Trophy Final against the Cheshire Phoenix, which you can watch live from 3pm on a live stream or on Sky Sports if you are not part of the 6,000-strong Emirates Arena crowd.
It promises to be a special occasion and presents an opportunity for the Caledonia Gladiators to win the club’s first piece of silverware in two decades.
In order to do that, the locker room is preaching one message to all the Gladiators at home and in the stands: Bring the noise!
“I know the fans here and they’ve just been unbelievable,” says Prince Onwas, ahead of the first major final of his professional career. “They come to our home games, they travel out to our away games, and they’re cheering as hard as they can and that’s all we can really ask for.
“But this game is massive for the club, the biggest in 20 years, so come ready to cheer. Come loud, come with your spirit, and just be ready to for us to bring it home!”
It seems that there may be somewhat of an element of destiny involved for the Gladiators here. In 2003, when the club last lifted silverware, beating Brighton Bears in the BBL Play-off Final, it came at the end of a season where the team had changed name to the Scottish Rocks and embarked on a new path with lofty ambitions.
Although things are altogether bigger now in terms of the scope of ambition and resource available for the club, there is a tangible serendipity about it all and a sense that the time is now for the Gladiators.
“The last couple of years, we’ve made almost every semi-final, and ended up losing at that stage,” said head coach Gareth Murray.
“Now we’re in the final and have the chance to win our first piece of silverware in a long time and that would be another huge step in the development the club.”
Route to the final
— British Basketball League (@BBLofficial) March 24, 2023
It’s been quite the journey to get to the cusp of glory for the Gladiators.
The springboard for this year’s historic run was a 97-86 derby triumph against Newcastle Eagles back in January, as Jeremiah Bailey (31 points, 12 rebounds) and Patrick Tape (17 points, 11 rebounds) starred with huge double-doubles in a game where the Caledonian heart of the Gladiators was also beating soundly.
Club captain Jonny Bunyan said: “We say it every year with the BBL Trophy, at the end of the day the final is played in Glasgow so if we’re going to make any of these finals, this is the one that we really, really want to make.
“Patrick played very well in the fourth quarter helping to put Newcastle away and I remember me, Kyle (Jimenez) and Fraser (Malcolm) playing a large chunk of minutes and all contributing really well to the win.
“I remember it being a strong performance from the Scottish guys with Jeremiah Bailey running away with the show.”
Then came the game where dreams of a final appearance on home court zoomed starkly into focus, a defensive slugfest between Caledonia and the London Lions, where the hosts won out 52-50 courtesy of an inspired performance.
Aljami Durham, recently recruited at that time, was the go-to bucket for the team on the day with 24 points, 10 clear of the next closest scorer in a game which was on a knife edge pretty much constantly.
When the buzzer sounded at the end of the fourth quarter after one last colossal defensive stand by the Gladiators, the atmosphere inside the Emirates Arena was one of highly-charged euphoria.
“It was absolutely crazy,” admits Onwas. “In that game, I fouled out early in the fourth quarter, so I was witnessing the game on the sideline and I was jumping up and down and yelling just as loudly as the crowd.
“To watch, the ending of that game was very special because I think we had the sense of knowing that we had a great chance to get into the final, exactly where we are now.”
The last hurdle before the final was a road trip to face NBL Division 1 side Derby Trailblazers, in a game with an entirely different kind of pressure as the Gladiators carried the weight of expectation and a raucous travelling support down south of the border.
David Sloan top-scored with 22 points and Ali Fraser put up 15 in 15 minutes to help carry the visitors past Derby to book a place in the final.
“It was a very focused performance,” said Bunyan. “We knew what they had and we knew what they were going to throw at us.
“It’s funny when you put a lot of very passionate people in there, the atmosphere was just as good as it was a BBL game but we took care of business.”
All of which leads us back to the Emirates Arena for the Gladiators’ date with destiny on Sunday.
Just the beginning…
Everyone who is supporting the club – whether at the game or at home – is part of the journey and part of the Gladiators movement, and Onwas says the team are locked in to ensure that our fans will be celebrating at the end.
“I believe we’re ready,” said the American forward. “Coming into this game, I think we couldn’t be more prepared. We scouted them well and we know them well so it’s just a matter of who executes.
“It’s been 20 years, so just to kill that and get that silverware, will mean a lot for the club – and for myself, it means everything. This is my sixth season, the biggest game of my career and I’m nothing but grateful and thankful for the opportunity.
“It is not the last trophy or opportunity we will get as a club and, if we’re able to get this win, I’m sure it’s just the beginning.”