Her teammates want to erect a statue to her, but Stef Collins would rather every penny in basketball is wisely spent protecting a sport in financial crisis. Tom Guntrip talks to the Cardiff Met Archers player, good enough to have won 139 Great Britain caps and respected enough to already have a seat on the sport’s board of directors.
In the corner of a small café, in the corner of a small university campus, in the corner of Cardiff, Stef Collins sips her coffee. Stef has spent her life in various corners, but she refuses to be put in one.
Less than 48 hours before our meeting, Stef was darting around a basketball court in Tel Aviv, putting in yet another incredible shift in an incredible career. A personal total of 19 points and 10 rebounds later and the Great Britain women’s team have moved top of their qualifying group for EuroBasket 2019.
They are joint top with Greece, where basketball is huge. Basketball in Israel is huge. This win is huge. And it couldn’t come at a better time for basketball in Britain.
Here, in the UK, the sport is at a breaking point. While the grassroots sport is modestly funded by Sport England, the elite side receives no funding from UK Sport as it is not considered an Olympic medal prospect.
The financial crunch is so serious that if £70,000 is not found before the end of March then all GB teams will be removed from their current competitions and banned for two years before being placed into Division C, alongside the likes of Malta, Gibraltar and Wales.
It comes at a time when £30m was spent on the lower participation sports that recently produced five medals at the Winter Olympics, prompting a debate over whether cash should only go to sports where there is medal-winning potential.
UK Sports Minister Tracey Crouch is to hold an emergency meeting with basketball officials on Thursday, with British Basketball asking for a modest £1m a year for the next three years, otherwise national men’s and women’s teams are likely to be withdrawn from international competition.
Stef’s experience in basketball allows her to speak with authority. Not only is she the most capped player in GB history – currently sitting on 139 appearances with “no plans to stop any time soon” – but she is also on the board of the British Basketball Federation (BBF) as the Basketball Wales (BW) representative and she is the Women’s and Girls’ Development Lead for BW.
“There is plenty of talent in the UK,” she says. “You only have to look at social media to see how many young stars we have going to the United States for college and how they are performing.”
There are many former adversaries who have cut their teeth in the Women’s British Basketball League (WBBL) against Stef and are now thriving in the States. They have represented GB at junior levels, but there may be no senior team for them to elevate to.
“We have a responsibility within the basketball community to find the means to get sponsorship elsewhere,” she adds.
Having played for the Rhondda Rebels in the EuroCup when they were sponsored by Coca Cola, she knows how much external funding can help.
Stef’s journey to becoming a leading light in British basketball also started in the States. While she may sound American, she was born in Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, to an American airman father and a local girl mother who used to socialise on base.
A few stops around Europe and the American mainland finally landed her in upstate New York, where her legacy shines bright. Inducted into the Odessa-Montour High School Hall of Fame was no mean feat, but she also cracked the New York Section IV High Schools Hall of Fame.
She was then selected as the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year during her time as a standout at St Bonaventure University, as voted by opposition coaches. These achievements were a sign of things to come, and no doubt there are a few more honours awaiting Stef when she hangs up her boots.
Stef originally intended to play basketball overseas in the Netherlands but a chance email exchange landed her in South Wales, plying her trade for the Rhondda Rebels in the English Basketball League and the EuroCup against top-tier European opposition.
During her time with the Rebels she received her British passport and was part of the first GB team of the modern era. After one season in the Rhondda she was persuaded by the large number of Cardiff Met Archers in the GB set up to move to Cardiff and begin a postgraduate path that would last multiple degrees and nearly ten years.
Her time at Cardiff Metropolitan University and with the Cardiff Met Archers has been a successful one, both personally and for the organisations involved.
Stef’s two postgraduate qualifications, one an MSc in Sports Coaching and Development, and the other a diploma in Strength and Conditioning, demonstrate her determination to succeed off the floor as well as on it.
She has also been signed up to the FIBA TimeOut programme, a unique one-off course that allows international athletes close to the end of their careers to study for a masters degree at Northumbria University as well as become FIBA accredited lifestyle advisors and gain other qualifications to assist in the transition to a working life.
Her long and storied career with the Archers includes a number of BUCS National Championship medals, a EBL Player of the Year award, a National Cup winners medal and multiple EBL league and play-off titles.
Not many Welsh sides can claim to have dominated English sport as much as the Rebels and the Archers have, and Stef has played a key role in many of these achievements. She describes her finest moment in Archers colours as, “an incredible memory.
“We were banged up, playing our third game in three days, Kasey [Jennings] was hurt, we were down 17 at half time to Northumbria, who were defending champions. Something just clicked, and we ended up winning by 1. We just went crazy celebrating.”
Her current season with the Archers hasn’t been the most successful if you only look at the league standings, but Stef insists that you have to look beyond the record to see the progress.
“The season has been an improvement on last season. We have a better style of play, we have found one that suits us, we are a lot more competitive.
“A lot of our games have been decided by 10 points or less, and they are starting to go our way.”
The GB window provided a chance for the Archers to re-group, having headed in to the break on a streak of seven defeats in a row and she acknowledges the benefit of sometimes having these minor disruptions.
“After the window, we are hoping to get the ball rolling and get a couple of wins. Like any season, you’ll have highs or lows. You can’t control injuries or illnesses, you just have to keep working hard.”
Wise words from the player-coach, who took the reins in 2012, as the Archers recently recorded two wins, away in Durham and Northumbria in back-to-back weekends, in their last three games.
Stef’s time with Great Britain has had many highs and lows. In memory of one of the greatest times of her career, she has the Olympic rings tattooed on her ribs.
“The Olympics were incredible. It was a great atmosphere and to be a part of team GB was so special. It was a special feeling to be hosting it”.
Even though they struggled for success – a double overtime game against France demonstrating their capabilities and their closest performance to a win – Stef recalls that, “we got stopped every two seconds for a selfie or an autograph, or people wishing us luck.
“Walking in to the stadium and seeing all the camera flashes and other athletes was incredible. I even high-fived Chris Hoy!”
The current GB qualifying campaign is going well, and she puts part of the success down to new coach Chema Buceta. Famous for his charisma and personality, it’s also known that he has never shouted or raised his voice at the team.
The veterans, in particular, respond to his energy and Steff says, “he’s been a breath of fresh air for us. We’ve had a few coaches, all with different strengths, but we love Chema and his energy and positivity. He’s not afraid to make big decisions.”
The main reason for the latest success is the chemistry that is evident across social media, and Stef heaps praise on her teammates when given the opportunity.
“It’s the belief in each other that makes this special. It’s [the belief] visible, we really want it, we really believe we can do well and regardless of other circumstances (the funding crisis) we are really passionate about British basketball. We want to succeed, we have great camaraderie and we have so much pride in putting on the jersey.”
Her veteran status is well known and her GB teammates make sure she knows that she is the veteran. She knows that while her experience can help others, she also maintains some bragging rights. She recalls one youngster on a recent trip complaining of feeling old, and they were quickly reminded that at 23 years old, compared to Stef’s youthful 35, they have no reason to complain.
The Commonwealth Games offer Stef another shot at an Olympic style tournament. Although she’s representing England, there was no real choice given the recent struggles of Welsh senior basketball. It could be one last shot at a major tournament and she’s keen to make the most of it.
“Most of our squad is WBBL and also in the GB set-up, so we’ve got the ability to do well and make it out of the group stages. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are well known around the world, so it’s going to be really tough. We want to go there and put basketball on the map for UK Sport and Sport England to take notice and demonstrate what we can do.”
Stef’s role in Welsh basketball is always increasing. Her experience and knowledge is always there for others to exploit and her work in the communities is vital for the growth of basketball participation in Cardiff and across the country.
Her work with ‘Girls Together’, Sport Cardiff’s version of ‘This Girl Can’, has seen her help set up the Butetown Dragons, a BAME-focused women’s only team, providing a valuable community hub for under-represented minorities and girls in Cardiff.
She’s particularly proud of her community work, knowing that sometimes there are boundaries that stop young women and girls playing sport, but that giving them a safe area somewhere can really help their social skills and mental health.
Stef’s contribution to basketball in Wales and across Great Britain cannot be understated, as she still gets asked for pictures with many young players and fans up and down the country on away games.
Her passion for basketball and for increasing female participation in the sport is to be commended, as is her on-court production.
Stef Collins in full flow is a feared sight for opposition players, and when she’s in the zone her teammates will whisper to each other that it’s about to go down.
Chema Buceta said after the recent GB wins that, “The day that Stef retires for GB, I think we will need to do a monument to her, because the amount she has done is fantastic.
“Stef is a player who understands the game so well, she was able to receive the ball to shoot it and she did an outstanding job.”
Stef’s response was typical Stef, understated and deflecting, as she responded: “Lets save the money for a monument and get the GB squads on court!”
Stef Collins isn’t done playing yet. She’s made it from New York to Cardiff via Rhondda and a lot of hard work.
She feels she’s got more in the tank to give to GB and the Archers. Whatever she does, you know she’ll throw herself into it with everything she has, just like how she plays.
That’s why Chema is right – she deserves that statue.