Former proteges of basketball coach Jimmy Rogers have paid tribute to his work steering young people away from crime.
The man who founded Brixton Topcats died at home in Brixton on October 1, aged 78, after a six-month battle against lung cancer.
One of his former players, Paul Ambrosius, who became a social worker, said: “If you look at his record, you would say ‘How did he not get a knighthood?’
“There have been many people who have been, but their record is mediocre in comparison to Jimmy’s.
His former charges include Luol Deng, but there are also doctors, lawyers, coaches, teachers, millionaires, accountants, bankers and a Grammy award-winning singer.
“Every single one of them would attest that their success is directly linked to what they learned at Brixton Topcats.
“He was the biggest pain in the a**e. But once he got his teeth into you, he would not stop. “He had flaws, like all of us. But his were necessary to create the charisma which sprinkled fairy dust on all those lives.
“When he was dying, we wanted him to be comfortable. We wanted him in sheltered accommodation. “But he insisted on staying – he wanted to be in Brixton until the day he died.”
Mr Ambrosious believes that was because of his childhood. “He thought sheltered accommodation was too close to the foster care he lived in as a child,” he said.
“Jimmy told us ‘I was brought up in an institution. I don’t want to die in one.’”
Rogers got Ambrosius his first job, voluntary work in community relations. “Everything fell into my lap from what he did,” said the 65-year-old who still plays basketball with the British Masters.
Rogers’ mother was a dancer from the Caribbean, his father an American merchant seaman, but he was born in Wales in 1939.
His early years were spent in an orphanage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where a teacher introduced him to basketball.
He became serious about the sport when he joined the army aged 15; he became a fitness trainer for his regiment, and in the English Central League, and later played professionally in West Germany and made the British Olympic team in 1968.
His first coaching was with youngsters in Toxteth, Liverpool, while working at Ford’s Halewood factory.
His sessions were always tough – Deng has said that he’s never run as much as he did in Brixton.~
Rogers became player-coach with the Liverpool Police who he was to go on to lead them to a National Championship at Crystal Palace in 1970-1.
He also coached a team at the school where they trained. Ambrosius, who was one of those pupils, said: “I remember claiming all sorts of skills that I didn’t possess which he, to my recollection, dealt with in a sensitive way.
He didn’t laugh or ridicule us when we showed him how hopeless we all were.”
Rogers arranged a match against the Liverpool team but they were thrashed. He didn’t let them play again but “ran us like greyhounds for nine months,” then the same team reversed the scores.
Another nine months later, they were beaten by the eventual National Junior Champions, Doncaster Panthers in the quarter-finals of the Junior National Championships.
They lost four times in the next three years and Ambrosius was picked for North West of England.
Rogers became a community relations officer and then in housing for black families in Brixton. He also became coach of Crystal Palace National League basketball team in his spare time.
He set up his own team in Brixton for players who could not succeed at other clubs.
“If teacher training colleges could teach it, we’d have less of a problem in our education system,” said Ambrosius.
“Jimmy Rogers is responsible for more inner-city success than any urban regeneration scheme or army of social and youth workers could possibly match or imagine.
“I for one would not wish to replay my life without having met and played for Jimmy Rogers.”
American-born Alton Byrd, another former player brought through by Rogers, played for Crystal Palace twice, from 1979-82 and in the 1990s.
He said on twitter: “Never has a man meant so much to an area, to a club, and to a generation of young men and women.
“His voice, literally and physically, was a clarion call to all young men and women who wanted to participate and learn about discipline and hustle.”
Liverpool ATAC – so named because attack is the best form of defence – was created in 1969 in Toxteth to get black kids aged 16 and 17 off the streets.
Under Rogers, they dominated basketball in the area for up to 12 years.
Manneh Elliott, who played for Liverpool ATAC under Jimmy Rogers and has since been honoured for his community work in Merseyside, said: “In those days, racism wasn’t even an issue – you could be called a n*****r by a policeman and a judge would say it was okay.
That happened to Jimmy. He fought against inequality all his life and wanted to help young people.
“Lots of teams wanted him as a player. He won the national title with Merseyside Police in 1981.
“He was a bull of a man, with strong arms, a big chest and big thighs. He also had a very pure shot – he was technically excellent
. He could put a ball on a dime so you knew where to run – he made it easy to score. I would call him a very smooth player – there were not many like him in the game at the time.
“The same people who he brought into the game are running it there now.
“It was hard to get a job in Liverpool in the early 1980s so that is why he moved to South London.”