The Agenda: Where does Fab Flournoy stand among North East sporting greats?

541 games is a remarkable achievement but Fab Flournoy deserves respect for the work done on and off the court

Fab Flournoy, player coach for Newcastle Eagles
Fab Flournoy, player coach for Newcastle Eagles

For Fab Flournoy, it was the sound of silence that confirmed the impact he had on British basketball.

When the final buzzer went in Glasgow Rocks’ shiny new Commonwealth Arena, they announced the final score and that was it.

Never mind that one of the opposition players had just done something that no other BBL player had ever done before, or that it was Flournoy who had broken the league’s record with his 541st appearance on a British basketball court.

In a funny way, it was the sort of competitive spirit that has driven Flournoy on these last 14 years. “After the game I thought about everyone who had made it possible. The coaches, the players, the officials, the owners and the fans – not just ours but the rival fans as well,” he reflects.

“They are fighting for themselves and I have so much respect for that. Do you know what it made me think? I survived it.”

He did much more than that, of course – 541 games in any sport is a truly remarkable achievement and when you take it alongside the hard, unseen hours that Flournoy has contributed off-the-court to improve the North East’s lot, then there is a time to pause and consider exactly where Flournoy stands in the greater scheme of North East’s sporting great and good.

There are legends, of course, and then there are legends.

Think of the North East sporting greats and the men and women who pop into your mind are the likes of Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer, Glenn McCrory, Brendan Foster, Steve Harmison, Paul Collingwood – men who have risen to the very top and peer down on the rest of us. It just so happens that most of those are born and bred in the North East, but there are others who are adopted by the region. They are fewer but no less important for their place in the history books.

For his work in the community, allied to the success he has brought to the region and the tireless way he has promoted his sport and the benefits of athletic achievement to more than 70,000 schoolchildren through the years, Flournoy deserves to be a part of this conversation.

Not that the man himself, even in an unusually contemplative mood on the Monday morning after he’s made history, will hear any of that of course.

“To me it’s humbling and difficult to be even mentioned in the same breath as those guys,” he says.

“The moment I start to think like that is the moment I become what I don’t want to become.

“What I want to – and all I have ever wanted to be – is the equal of everyone else.

“I don’t want to be above anyone and I don’t want to be below anyone. When someone puts me below someone else I will fight with all my life to get up to their level.

“And if you try to put me above others like that, I will pull myself down again.”

Any mention of North East sporting greats is bound to lead to mentions of one man, and Flournoy – unprompted – nominates his own hero from this region.

Sir Bobby Robson. The measure of the man is that he passed away and yet he is still doing what he loved to do while he was with us, which is communicating with people,” he said.

“Even in death he is doing that. There’s only one of him and he is alone on that platform on his own in terms of the North East and sport. The rest of us have our platforms that we work from but Sir Bobby Robson has his own platform.”

We frequently talk of athletes not adapting to an area that does ask a lot of its sportsmen, but Flournoy could never be seen as part of the group of professionals who, understandably perhaps, are here to advance their career. That is why he is worth more than those who do their bit, take their money and pay lip service.

“I believe in the North East,” he says, succinctly. “What I do in the community is more important than what I do on the court. I see us as a band of brothers in the North East. We have pride in what we do and sport is a big part of that.

“I believe in the Falcons, Newcastle United, the Vipers as they were, Durham cricket, Sunderland, Middlesbrough. This is a proud and special area and to be part of that is a special thing. I will never forget the contribution the people and this area have made to my career.

“I came out of a hostile environment and while I don’t want to say I had the most difficult upbringing that anyone will have, people had to believe in me. Tony Garbelotto, Nick Nurse, Chris Finch, Paul Blake – they believed in me.”

That Flournoy’s achievement was made in the week when British basketball saw its funding cut by UK Sport is somewhat ironic.

He sees it as proof that there is a battle still raging; a war for credibility that is still being fought by the sport and those whose shoulders he is standing on as he claims this fantastic record.

Sunday, though, was about him and the impact he has had on the North East, basketball and sport in this country. “Pardon me for saying it, but I changed the game,” he says, accurately.

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