Tom Ward is a former professional basketball player, turned coach, turned tour operator. He has recently launched a mentorship scheme for young basketball hopefuls and plays semi-pro for Sussex side Worthing Thunder. Leo McGuinn talked to him about his career so far and what the future may hold…
It’s not often that a present we receive for our ninth birthday changes our lives, for Tom Ward it set him on a path that he is still on 23 years later.
A friend gifted him a basketball, a vague interest soon became an obsession and basketball soon became his life.
Softly spoken and impressively articulate, Ward’s personality is reflected in his game. Both are earmarked by a hard-working nature and a desire to push himself as far as possible.
He worked harder than anybody else as a youngster, and it didn’t go unnoticed. At 17 years old Ward got the opportunity to play basketball at one of the top high schools in America. Overnight he went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in the biggest pond of all.
“I was really out of my depth and it was a shock to the system. We had a player that went on to play for the Lakers. He was 14 years old, about 6’8 and could dunk like a man. I’d just never seen anything like that before”
Despite the shock, Ward adapted quickly and secured a scholarship to play Division 1 basketball at St. Francis’ in Brooklyn. This was the top amateur level in the world and a proving ground for the NBA.
He soon realised that ambitions cannot always be realised.
“Your ambitions can be too lofty and mine certainly were as far as what I was capable of doing. The difference between my aspirations and reality caused a lot of unhappiness in Brooklyn. I wasn’t playing enough, and I really struggled mentally”
A change was needed. He transferred to Division 2 outfit St. Michael’s in Vermont and spent three successful years there. He was made captain in his senior year and pays tribute to his coach for forming the way he is, even today.
“Captaincy was an incredible honour for me. We had a demanding coach who really pushed us. He demanded accountability. I learned so much from that and it shaped me as a person in terms of who I am today”
He reached a crossroads in his life when he left St. Michael’s. He wanted to use his psychology degree and take some time away from the game he loved. As fate would have it, he was unsuccessful in the visa lottery and had no choice but to return to the UK.
“It’s crazy to think how different my life could have been. If my name had been pulled out of the hat I would have stayed in the US and moved away from basketball. In hindsight, I’m so grateful I didn’t”
Instead of working with juvenile offenders in America, Ward found himself back where it began, in Brighton.
He still loved basketball but decided that perhaps it wasn’t playing where his career lay but passing on what he learned from his coaches to the younger generation.
This led to him setting up South Coast Elite, a basketball school for young people in Brighton.
After a year back in the UK, Ward got a surprise offer to play professionally in Spain. It was one he couldn’t resist. Leaving his business in the hands of a friend, he packed his bag once more and headed off in the pursuit of a career playing basketball, this time to the Canary Islands.
It was an experience that consolidated that playing basketball professionally wasn’t his calling.
“It was an amazing experience but one that made me realise that I didn’t love basketball in the same way anymore. I loved coaching and trying to give back. I realised halfway through the season that I got more out of working with young players than actually playing myself”
Ward returned to Brighton and put his all into his coaching business. Everything went into South Coast Elite and while a successful six years followed so did a degree of burnout.
He admits his obsessive nature can be both his greatest strength as well as a weakness.
“I became obsessed with it. It became my sole focus, making this thing the best it could be but I burned myself out eventually. I felt I had taken it as far as possible. I am proud of what we achieved in the community, but it was time for me to move on”
Tom sold the company in 2019 and decided it was time to turn his focus onto another business he had set up a few years previous. BTM Basketball is a touring business and until the pandemic ran regular international tours for basketball clubs, academies and schools all over the country.
The enforced break made him realise that he wasn’t finished with coaching and just weeks ago launched a mentorship programme called Next Play.
“It’s focused on kids who are really passionate about the sport. I help players establish a vision of themselves as a player and set up steps to realise that vision”
Ward’s love of playing basketball has never waned and he has been turning out for semi-pro side Worthing Thunder since 2014. There have been no thoughts of moving on, this season he is playing more minutes than ever before.
“My body is definitely feeling it more than ever but there’s no thoughts of me throwing in the towel any time soon. As long as I can contribute I’ll still be playing”
It is easy to forget that Ward is just 32. He has achieved a lot at a young age and speaks with the authority and eloquence of someone at the end of their coaching career, not the relative beginning.
His answers to my questions are as smooth as his three-point shot and his story is a rare success story amongst an otherwise sparse British basketball landscape.
The next time you’re unsure what to buy for someone’s 9th birthday, why not get them a basketball? It could be the start of an unforgettable journey.