It’s been a season of immense highs for the Caledonia Gladiators, on both the women’s and men’s side.
The club created history-making moments that shone a spotlight brightly on the vibrant and growing Scottish basketball scene. A spotlight very rarely received for the sport.
This past season, in the Women’s British Basketball League (WBBL), saw the Caledonia Gladiators bring the London Lions 52-game winning streak to a grinding halt with an inspiring one-point win over the league champions giving them an impressive second-place finish in the league.
I spoke with Lisa Palombo, Head of Operations at the club to reflect on their fantastic season and their plans for the club, to gain more insight into the club’s fundamental values to bring more attention to the game in Scotland.
The club, unapologetically, is focused on providing a professional home for Scottish talent. And let it be known, there is no shortage of home-grown female players that are competing at the highest British level.
This is no more evident than seeing Scottish-born WBBL players Erin McGarrachan (Gladiators) and Hannah Robb (Riders) named as part of the 12 to represent GB senior women’s roster at the 2023 Women’s EuroBasket tournament.
Lisa explained: “The truth of the matter is that we came into this to ensure that there was a genuine provision for athletes across Scotland to become professional basketball players, and more importantly, be given this opportunity within their own country.”
This doesn’t just happen, Lisa emphasised the work of the club over the past seventeen years to distinguish a strong female pathway, and you can tell her delight at adding a pro team to this set-up ‘adds the final pieces of the jigsaw’.
She’s clear that this doesn’t just happen in isolation, and that providing the right development opportunities for young athletes is a key priority for the club: “The most important thing I should mention at this stage is that we can’t and won’t embark on this alone, we need to engage and collaborate with all basketball clubs and our Governing Body,
“So, whilst we will continue to provide opportunities within our own Gladiators pathway, we will also work hard to engage with all appropriate clubs. We all have a duty of care to get this right for our younger athletes.”
We talk about representation a lot in sport, that the work of athletes now is also about inspiring the next generation and leaving their sport in a better place than they found it.
It’s clear that this is at the forefront of the Caledonia Gladiator’s ethos and values: Lisa went on to explain this: “If you watched the WBBL this year, you’ll have seen role models such as Chantelle Handy (GB Olympian), Erin McGarrachan and Robyn Lewis (Scottish Nationals) leading the Gladiators to a second-place finish behind the London Lions,
“The biggest thing it does is inspire the next generation to fall in love with the sport. Sport changes lives, and communities. Not to mention the overall promotion of health. One of our key objectives, besides being one of the strongest professional teams in Britain, is to flood the bottom end with youngsters who simply love basketball; love playing and love watching- that’s when we’ll see more athletes develop and in time, more professional athletes emerging from this country.”
Caledonia Gladiators owners, Alison and Steve Timoney, have not shied away from trying to provide a club structure where there is complete equality between the women’s and men’s teams, a place where there is one club with one vision.
Lisa echoed these sentiments: ” Think about the difference this will make, when you can come along to the home of Caledonia Gladiators to watch men and women play professional basketball, in an environment where both are given a platform to showcase their talent. The men’s and women’s games can be quite different in style of play, but what’s not different is the hard work each athlete puts in daily and for Alison and Steve to start this journey by stating they would treat both teams equally, is quite a welcomed movement in professional basketball.”
There are some huge projects and plans lined up for the Caledonia Gladiators which put those words into action. Most notably, this includes a £20 million investment from owners Alison and Steve, to build a purpose-built basketball facility for the club.
When the plan comes to fruition there will be a 6000-seater flagship arena with five training courts built. To the doubters, Lisa says: “It’s all seriously ambitious stuff, and again, brings something to
Scotland that it’s never had before.”
But you can’t just build an arena overnight, this plan will take a couple of years to finish. But that hasn’t stopped the club’s ambitions.
For now, the club’s leadership has some interim plans to grow their presence and quality of facilities for both players and fans: “With both teams playing and training out of different venues and not having one court to call ‘home’, it made Alison and Steve change their plans slightly.”
They have now decided to build a 1600-seater in the interim, which will give Caledonia Gladiators a new home this summer: “This will allow us to have full control over fixtures and scheduling, as well as give our players the appropriate environment, matching the standard and expectations expected from them as players and as a team. It’ll also allow us to offer a consistently high-quality experience on game day, which will be great for our fanbase.”
There is a real commitment not to do things by half, and to make positive steps forward at every opportunity. Lisa explains, Alison and Steve are entirely committed to this on both a professional and personal level.
And it’s personal for Lisa too. Despite never competing in the sport in her youth, she began to fall in love with the game when she met Jim Lay, an experienced Scottish basketball coach, and stumbled upon some rare talent as a PE teacher at St Maurice’s High School.
Lisa began teaching at St Maurice’s in 2004: “I had a girl in my class that I probably recognised a little bit of myself in; she just lived for sport and I guess by this stage in my own life journey, I recognised that young people like this deserved opportunities. That wee girl was our current WBBL team captain, Erin McGarrachan. When you’re a PE teacher, you’re in a very fortunate position – you can offer young people opportunities they may never have, and that is where I guess my own basketball journey started.”
Lisa’s passion for making basketball a vehicle for change at both an individual and community level is palpable. She’s seen the lessons and impact it has had on people who have touched the game, be that performance athletes, recreational players, parents or coaches and she’s passionate that those lessons last far beyond what happens on the court.
And that’s why basketball is special – in my opinion anyway. It has the unique potential to sit at the intersection of individual talent, team unity and the wider community. At its best, it brings together competition, motivation, inspiration and relationships that will last far beyond the years you can play the game.
Caledonia Gladiators are a club with big dreams and big ambitions but are proving they are committed to taking equally big actions to reach them. I think it’d be worth watching this space, as I’d be inclined to say they might just surpass them.