The Essex basketball story

Vice-Chancellor Anthony Forster and Director of Sport Dave Parry reflect on a momentous anniversary

  • Date

    Wed 8 Mar 23

Essex Rebels logo

This year marks five years since professional basketball players first ran out for the University of Essex and it is almost a decade since the launch of our basketball programme

The Essex basketball story

This momentous occasion and the 9th anniversary, offers a key moment to reflect on what has been achieved and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Our dedicated team built a sector-leading programme from scratch and have built championship winning sides, with players making the journey from the Essex Arena to international honours.

In the first decade of the programme, the University of Essex has been very fortunate indeed to recruit two outstanding leaders in Coach Mark Lloyd (2014-2018) and Coach Tom Sadler (2018-2023).

Benefiting from coaches each leading the programme for nearly half a decade each, Essex has had remarkable continuity in senior on-court leadership.

This has played a large part in Essex building one of the most respected University basket programmes in the UK.

In the first four years the core focus was to launch a basketball performance programme from scratch and to make it one of the very best university teams in the UK – and a secondary focus, to start building men’s and women’s basketball squads and the infrastructure, to be competitive in the British basketball national leagues.

Under the inspirational leadership of Coach Lloyd, as ‘Essex Blades’ the women’s University of Essex team won year-on year promotions to the BUCS Premier Division – the highest level of university basketball – with the team winning the Premier South Conference university title at the first attempt in 2017-18. In the Basketball England national league, the women’s team won the National Cup in 2016 and claimed the Division One title in 2017-18.

In 2018 this impressive performance led to the women’s team being invited to join the Women’s British Basketball League (WBBL), the highest level of the women’s professional basketball in the UK and the ‘Essex Rebels’ franchise was launched. Taking four seasons, the men’s team earned promotion from Division 4 of the national basketball league (NBL) to Division 1 for the 2020/21 season.

Alexa Naessens lines up a shot)
Alexa Naessens lines up a shot

In this first phase, many of the foundations of future success were laid.

The creation of an extended team of staff, including the appointment of a coach responsible for leading the men’s senior team, and assistant coaches in place for each team; a Performance Manager leading our five performance sports, a Strength and Conditioning Coaching Team; an on-site sports therapy clinic; the development of strong links with the Human Performance Unit, and the planning and completion of a new state-of-the-art Essex 1,655 seat Essex Sport Arena, the largest indoor spectator sporting venue in the East of England, which opened to much acclaim in January 2018. 

Coach Sadler, was recruited to the post of Head of Basketball Performance for the 2018/19 season and over the next five years led the women’s Essex Blades program to 4 BUCS Premier South titles and in 2022 they were crowned the BUCS overall national champions, bringing the title to the University of Essex for the first time

The step-up to the WBBL, with the Rebels Women’s team competing with professional teams was challenging, with the Rebels winning only 3 games in their first 2018/19 season. However, the women’s team now aspires to be in the WBBL play-offs each year, features in the latter stages of knock-out competitions – and on its day, the women’s team is capable of beating almost any team in the WBBL.

Coached by Ross Norfolk the men’s team is also now firmly established in Division 1 of the NBL, with the Essex Arena one of the most popular venues on the basketball circuit. Both teams have a strong ethos, a coach-led athlete development focus and a family feel – and both teams share a habit of leaving it late to win games.

In the 2018-23 period, the Essex Rebels programme launched a complete pathway through schools’ engagement, children’s activities and a junior club.

We now have one of the largest junior basketball programmes in the country with around 350 children attending weekly activities, supported by an amazing team of 14 volunteer staff.

The Junior Club management team is led by Rob Angira, who was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2021 for his work with the club.

Our Essex Rebels professional players are now delivering school assemblies and PE taster sessions to around 3,000 children each season, and we also collaborate with local charities and Essex Police in delivering basketball in local parks in areas of social deprivation.

Off court, the University has supported the basketball programme with the creation of sector leading locker rooms.

From September 2023, the development of a coaching and performance analysis room will offer some of the very best facilities in the UK for basketball athletes to train and compete, supported by an enhanced scholarship programme, the launch of an innovative on-campus athlete village and excellent coaching support.

Recognising the central place of sport in campus life, the University has been a UK pioneer of offering a unique basketball ‘game day experience’, with investment in a state of the art Essex Arena sound and light system, the in-game digital experience, a fan zone, a student supporter section ‘The Tribe’, music, dance and pom performances and a larger than life mascot Queen B, hosted by a game host – and all combining to create one of the very best game day spectator experiences.

With an average attendance of 400 spectators for our basketball games, the Essex Rebels now has the largest average number of spectators of any professional women’s basketball team in the UK.

Recognition from Basketball England for all that has been achieved was marked by the Basketball England award of ‘Outstanding Education Institution of the Year in the East of England'.

So, what is the future?

In the second decade of the University of Essex basketball programme, we want to further strengthen our on-court performances in BUCS and the professional leagues. Winning matters, but as a university-based basketball performance programme, we also know that winning isn’t the limit of our ambition.

•We want to firmly establish ourselves as the leading Higher Education institution for sport in the region.

•By using our Essex values and the environment that we have created, we want to attract and support student athletes who have the potential and dedication to benefit from and contribute to our pursuit of athlete-centred sporting excellence.

•We want to play the type of entertaining basketball and offer a game day experience that students, staff and our community really want to come and watch every week.

•And we want the Essex Rebels programme to be a beacon at the University of Essex, inspiring every student from every background to realise the potential of their own ‘Essex Spirit’.

In this way, we not only want to support our players and teams to realise their full potential, we also want them to inspire each and every one of us and our wider community too.