BASKETBALL could easily emerge as the next big sport in Scotland.

Interest and investment in the likes of football, rugby and golf is evergreen. Even tennis and hockey have enjoyed a bit of a purple patch in terms of brand awareness.

But the time may well be approaching for Scottish basketball players to shine. And if that is the case, then Stirling might just find itself playing a major role in the years to come.

The potential for the game in Scotland is relatively untapped, but it enjoys a fervent following across the country. Every week, thousands of Scots attend sports halls and arenas for a feverish four-quarter maelstrom of incredible skill, unbridled determination and raw athleticism.

Of course, it is in the auspicious environs of the Emirates Arena in Glasgow where that enthusiasm reaches a crescendo. This – being the home of the Caledonian Gladiators, Scotland’s only professional basketball team – is a beacon for the Scottish game.

Over the years, talent from all over the world came to play in the team – whether that was in its previous iterations as the Edinburgh Rocks, the Scottish Rocks, the Glasgow Rocks, or in its current Gladiator era.

Forth Valley has certainly played a role in the development of the team. Rising stars William Kemp and Jack Hencher are both from Stirling and secured roster spots with the Gladiators for the current season. And it’s certainly been an eventful debut campaign for the duo, who now aim to be a part of team history this week when the Gladiators host the Cheshire Phoenix in the final of the BBL Trophy.

Kemp and Hencher, who are also involved with Stirling Knights, are themselves no strangers to success as they recently helped Stirling University clinch the UCS Conference Cup. The duo are among the Forth Valley cohort at the Gladiators, which also includes Falkirk trio Jonny Bunyan, Fraser Malcolm and Ali Fraser.

The sport may well be on the rise, with opportunities becoming more readily available, but there is still a long way to go before Scots may find themselves among the elite level.

“Basketball is growing in Scotland,” Kemp told the Stirling News. “Especially when you see teams like the Gladiators. And there might be a team in Edinburgh coming up over the next couple of years as well.

“But it’s not like England where you have these big cities and big teams. Up here, it’s all about developing yourself through a local club and then proving yourself at the bigger sides when you get that opportunity.

“It’s tough, in a sense, to make a mark. But it’s just such a privilege to play here. I’ve taken so many positives from the season so far that will set me up well both on and off the court.

“But the sport is only growing in Scotland at the minute. We just have to see what the future holds.”

Stirling itself has been slowly developing talent, with the likes of the Knights and the University more than pulling their weight. It is hoped that many others will follow the likes of Kemp and Hencher in the years to come.

Hencher added: “There are a good few local clubs, but the likes of Stirling Knights do a really good job of keeping kids involved up until the older ages.  And the more you can do that, the more you can develop higher-quality players.

“And if you can do that – if you can get some high-level players - then the other players in the team will push themselves to match them.”

Stirling News: Will Kemp and Jack HencherWill Kemp and Jack Hencher (Image: N/A)

It can be daunting to blaze a trail, to be the first, or to break new ground. Scottish basketball heroes are in short supply, with only Scotsman ever having made it to the NBA.

Stirling’s Kemp and Hencher, however, are emboldened by the example set by Kieron Achara – a legend of British basketball, having represented Scotland and Team GB at the highest levels, who also has an MBE for services to community sport.

The fact he is also from Stirling certainly helps. It shows there is a pathway to the highest levels. With, perhaps, greater opportunity for the next generation, anything is possible.

Kemp said: “Having role models and being role models is important. Knowing that the likes of Kieron Achara is from the same area – about ten minutes away from me – was positive. It helps that people from Stirling have local names to look up to.”

“It’s great for Stirling, especially. The local scene is getting better as well, we do see a lot of new faces. Hopefully, if anyone from Stirling was looking to pursue basketball that they will always have me and Jack to look up to as well. In general, it’s looking positive.”

Indeed, Hencher has expressed his appreciation for Achara’s guidance over the years.

“Kieron has had a big impact on me,” he said. “The first time I spoke to him was a few years ago when I was at U16s, but since then he has always been really good with me. He’s been a bit of a mentor.

“And having a guy like that who has been around and played at the levels he has…it just shows you that you can come from Stirling and make it.”

Achara retired from the game having achieved more than most. Indeed, his shirt number was retired and adorns the halls of the Gladiators’ home arena. He is delighted to see the next generation of talent coming through from the Forth Valley area, having grown up in Stirling and played for Falkirk Fury.

He feels that if basketball is to become a major sport in Scotland then the future of the Gladiators is key. Should more people gravitate toward the team and show their support, the more likely they are to find more success – both in the British league and, perhaps, on the continent.

Having a successful professional side would also help to inspire a new generation of talent and ensure those wishing to play the sport will not have to seek opportunities outside of Scotland to make it to the highest levels.

Achara said: “I’m loving watching the likes of young Jack Hencher and Willie Kemp coming up and seeing them as part of the Gladiators squad – it’s showing people there is a home for the sport.

Stirling News: Kieron Achara played with the Glasgow Rocks, now known as the Caledonia Gladiators, from 2015 to 2019Kieron Achara played with the Glasgow Rocks, now known as the Caledonia Gladiators, from 2015 to 2019 (Image: N/A)

“That’s important for other players to see that opportunity is here. I left home at 17 and had a bit of a nomadic life because there wasn’t much opportunity in the country at the time. But knowing there is a club here that aims to play at the top European competitions, that’s a real positive for the Scottish game.”

He continued: “There is a lot of untapped potential for the sport in Scotland. There are things we can do to help the sport grow here.

“First and foremost, we have a professional team and that’s a good starting point for people to rally behind.  There is an influence from Stirling with that professional team at this moment in time with two young lads coming through the Stirling Knights pathway.

“The main core of the Gladiators team is completely Scottish and that is something they want to continue. But the only way that happens is if we really strengthen our community clubs – making sure the likes of the Stirling Knights are continuing to push boundaries and developing players.

“We can strengthen the awareness of sport and strengthen the ambition of young people who want to play and achieve in basketball – that’s a good starting point, and we can build from there.”

Achara has long held the view that basketball is a life sport. The lessons learned on the court are never confined there. It can be a vehicle to improve wellbeing and enhance future prospects – that is if the chance to play is there.

He added: “I always think basketball has that reach and that ability to influence and help others get out different situations. That’s the most important message. The sport can make better people, it can give them hope and belief that they can go on and achieve in sport and in life.

“Basketball is one of the most inclusive sports you can have – I look at Stirling University and they have wheelchair basketball every Monday night; they also have ASN basketball going on. It’s a sport that appeals to people of all economic backgrounds.

“There is a great initiative being run at the Raploch Centre on a Friday which is getting some young kids off the street and into the sports hall to play some basketball.

“So, there is a lot of untapped potential. We need to show people clearer pathways of how to get involved.”

The future of the sport appears to be in good hands, with local clubs working hard to develop a pool of talent to make it at the professional level. It is a work in progress, but the signs remain positive.

In the meantime, there is the small matter of the BBL Trophy final this Sunday. The Caledonia Gladiators will welcome the Cheshire Phoenix to Glasgow for an almighty showdown. For Kemp and Hencher, it could the next huge milestone of an incredible basketball journey.

“It’s big for the Gladiators,” Kemp said. “It’s a huge opportunity for us to win something.

“We just need to take care of business on the 26th. If we stick to our principles, and stay locked in, then I really believe we will bring silverware back to Glasgow.”

His teammate Hencher added: “Everyone is looking forward to this final. It will mean the world to a lot of the guys to go out there and win it. I definitely think we can.

“If we do win, it will put Scottish basketball on notice. It’s not often you see a Scottish team win British tournaments, or British cups. It will put a bit of respect there.”