I hate to start 2013 on a sad note, but when I learned this morning of the passing of one of my oldest friends in basketball, committing something about Neil Ross to these pages just seemed like the natural thing to do.
Nicknamed 'Blisters', Neil Ross was a team-mate of mine at Meteors and at Bolton Bulls for many years. He was also a great friend and influence (good and bad some might argue), and despite never quite making it to the very peak of the sport, a champion wheelchair basketball player.
My 20 years in the game might not have been a success in the eyes of some. After all much of that time was spent cruising lazily around the second tier of the National League, breaking sweat only when in close proximity to the basketball, like a boxer dog that has just heard the bounce of his favourite tennis ball and jumped up from his forty winks to chase it. However, those of you still with me after that strained analogy might want to consider that despite my limitations I played with and against the very best players this country had to offer at the time. Some of them are still among the best and narrowly missed out on a bronze medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games recently. The point is that I don't think I have ever seen a talent quite like Neil. That he was not a regular fixture in the Great Britain squad throughout his time in the game is symptomatic of the way that teams were chosen in those days. Without getting too far into it and in the process confusing those of you not familiar with the vagaries of the game's classification system, Neil was a player of relatively lesser disability who sat low in his chair and played mostly around the perimeter. His game was taking players on one-on-one, hitting the outside shot, finding the pass that nobody else could see. All of this he did effortlessly and in a way that completely inspired me. The game was fun with Neil. He was never going to be the tall battering ram that the coaches wanted players of his classification to be.
Not that he didn't care about the result. He was very passionate about winning and, as coach of the North West junior team in particular, got very angry indeed at times. If you couldn't play like him, maybe he could scare the shit out of you enough for you to get somewhere close. I have only seen one other coach get near to some of Neil's legendary outbursts, a man called Fred at Meteors. I only had the pleasure of one training session and one game with Fred, but I clearly remember him going apoplectic at every single, small element of the game that didn't go exactly as he planned it. If Fred is still with us I wouldn't be surprised if he has some blood pressure problems.
That's who Fred was, but when Neil went off his proverbial trolley in a time-out you got the sense that it wasn't quite him. Off the court he was everyone's mate, one of the funniest people I have known, and hugely popular. Had it not been for his occasional tantrums he would have been perfect for the job of coaching the north west junior team that he had previously been fundamental to the success of as a player. All the other junior players were slightly in awe of him and would have driven through a block of shite if that was what he had told us it would take to win. As it was he did a fairly decent job in the role in any case, with national titles at Stoke Mandeville becoming the norm. His sense of fun could get us in trouble sometimes, but we childishly drank it in. Not everyone in attendance at those tournaments was totally in love with our pre-game warm-up music choice, Wigfield's Saturday Night. If we were especially confident we might even throw the dance routine in. Wins were traditionally celebrated with a Jurgen Klinsmann-style dive from our wheelchairs (the German striker's self-mocking goal celebration was all the rage in those days), but losses were felt keenly. Losing is supposed to hurt, but when we did we were left in no doubt as to how important it had been to Neil. Sometimes it was just a little too important to him.
And that is pretty much how my playing days with Neil ended. We were playing for Bolton at the National League play-offs (third division) against Manchester. Down by a point Neil raced free on a fast-break and as time ran out, was pushed off balance by a defender causing him to miss the shot. We had lost and all kinds of merry hell broke loose. I just remember going back to the dormitory, away from all the madness that ensued (it got a little physical as I recall) and having this funny feeling that this would be our last game for Bolton. And so it was, as Neil headed for Sheffield and one or two of the rest of us moved on to Oldham. Looking back that might have been the last time I played the game completely freely, where doing the least obvious, most outrageous thing was encouraged. Some would say I became a better player when under the guidance of first division coaches at Oldham and later at Sheffield, but I enjoyed it less. I was never quite comfortable with the regimented nature of it all, the idea that I was there to help someone taller and less disabled look good for the good of the team, well it just didn't sit all that well with a little show-off like me. By the time of the 1997 World Junior Championships and the end of my international aspirations (or Hajgate as I like to call it), I was well and truly a recreational player. I was playing with the same free spirit as I did with Neil, only now I knew I wasn't going anywhere lofty at the end of it all.
These memories are fresh, but one most vivid recollection I have of Neil is of a game in Scotland. The West Of Scotland team were notoriously difficult to beat on their own patch, but one of our attempts to do so at Bolton became ever more difficult when we lost Neil to one of the most horrific injuries I have ever seen on a basketball court. Going for a 50-50 ball with one of their lads the two of them collided sickeningly. Neil put his hands over his eyes immediately and when he eventually was able to remove them you could see the blood gushing from what looked like his eyeball. That he was not blinded is a minor miracle but you know what? If he had been he would still have been able to play basketball to a seriously high level. He just had it, that touch, technique, that ability to float past people like they weren't really there. That touch of genius. I can't remember whether we won that game that day but I seriously doubt it.
From the day I first met Neil as a 16-year old (he was three years older than me, at 13, and playing for a team called Red Rose who played their home games in the unnerving surroundings of Kirkham Prison!) to the last time I saw him, there remained a strong rapport. When he moved away from basketball and into coaching wheelchair rugby I asked him for a favour. I had suggested to the editor of Rugby League World magazine that I write a piece on wheelchair rugby for them. When they agreed I made a quick call to Neil, who remember at this point I had not really seen for a number of years, and he instantly agreed. We did the interview over the phone (when we had stopped laughing about old times and reciting old episodes of Vic Reeves Big Night Out) and I had a double page spread in a national, glossy sports magazine. It remains among the best achievements of a journalism career matched only in under-achievement by my exploits as a wheelchair basketball player. But the point is that Neil was ready to help an old friend out at a moment's notice. By the way, aswell as wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby, Neil was also at various times heavily involved with wheelchair fencing and wheelchair tennis. I never saw him in action in any of these sports, but if he was half as good at any of these as he was on a basketball court then he would have been formidable.
Latterly my communication with Neil was limited to the odd slice of Facebook banter. He had moved down south and got married, and so much of our correspondence consisted of me goading him about his defection to the dark side that is rugby union. Once, When We Were Kings (junior kings at any rate), he had been an avid Wigan rugby league fan, with my devotion to St.Helens causing many an interesting debate. Sadly for me at that time, Wigan were winning just about everything while Saints, well Saints had Paul Forber and Dave Tanner.
I knew nothing of the return of his illness until today. That had apparently been how he wanted it. No fuss, no drama. It said much about the man, as do my many fond memories of him.