Behind the kind eyes and the winning smile of NASSA’s Head Coach Chris Facey and the UK Community Coach of the Year 2014 is a story of basketball heartbreak that few know.
It hides from view the devastating injury he suffered at the age of just 22 which denied him the playing career in professional basketball of which he had always dreamed.
Having risen through the ranks in his native Jamaica, Chris went to the United States to try out for the professional league which sits directly beneath the NBA and its superstars. In the trial game, he jumped for the ball in a challenge of the sort you witness 50 times every game.
A slight touch in mid-air knocked him off balance. He came down badly on both legs and then another player landed on him. Both of his legs were broken. He spent much of the next two years in a wheelchair, his playing ambitions crushed.
“The college in the States looked after me and put me back on my feet,” said Chris. “My legs healed properly but I couldn’t play the minutes that I wanted to play and it ended my ambitions to play professionally.
“I went back to Jamaica. Then when I was 30 I came to Britain to try to play again in the pro league here. I had a few trials but I didn’t carry on and I got more into the teaching and the coaching.”
A chance meeting with NASSA founder Natasha Hart in Balaam Park in Plaistow, east London seven years ago gave Chris the opportunity to make a difference.
As Head Coach for Junior Development, Chris has gained Levels 1 and 2 basketball coaching qualifications through NASSA and is as enthusiastic about shaping its young participants as outstanding young people as he is about turning them into league-winning basketball players.
Chris added: “When I met Natasha in the park, she told me what we could do as a club. I brought my experience. When we took off we didn’t expect to win in the first year, but we did and that helped me to become stronger as a coach – to start to read more, to start to work with young people more on the academic side and to convince them to not get themselves into trouble, which is hard to do at that age.
“As a child you make a lot of mistakes and I’m trying to guide them so that those things do not happen. It is hugely rewarding. We have become stronger as a club, we are winning and I always think winning is a good thing. You can lose but when losing becomes a habit, you don’t want to do it again so you have to find a way.”
As with all of the NASSA coaches, Chris is paid for less than half of the time he commits to the charity.
In 2012 he was named as England Basketball’s Volunteer Coach of the Year. This year he has eclipsed even that achievement. In June he was recognised as Coach of the Year in the prestigious London Awards for Sport & Physical Activity 2014 and then, in November, came ultimate recognition from his peers when he was named Community Coach of the Year in the UK Coaching Awards 2014 and was given a special trophy as runner-up in the overall Coach of the Year category.
In spite of the accolades, Chris insists his rewards come in much simpler forms. “The kids find a certain way to reward me. Sometimes I get a text to say: ‘Coach, it’s good.’ That’s good enough for me. There’s nothing else I could want from them than to see them do well, respect what they are and where they are coming from.
“We are doing the right thing. It works for us. Kids are kids. They make mistakes, but if they can control their behaviour in the classroom, on and off the court, that’s all we ask and we’ve got no trouble at all when it comes to practice. Everyone understands.
“We don’t expect them to give us millions in the future but if there is a way they can grow up, do something good and help put back into what we do, that would be really great for us.
“And we have guys who have moved on and who are in the States playing basketball now. They come back every summer, work out with us and show the other kids that they have learned what we passed on to them. It’s great.”
Now 40, Chris is always willing to help coaches from other clubs and organisations, passing on tips and his passion. He wants NASSA to continue on its path.
NASSA is still growing. The one ambition I have now is to give all I’ve got. Natasha is pushing in the right direction but it’s about sustaining it financially, too. The kids are getting older so we need facilities and new equipment to always push forward.
“We also need a minibus because the important thing is how kids get home from school and to training, their safety. That’s one of the things that bothers us as much as coaching basketball.”