The QT

Tuesday 23 July 2024

Legends mark legend Defoe’s loyalty

Basketball’s Darius Defoe will celebrate 20 years at Newcastle Eagles with a star-studded exhibition match this weekend. Fabulous Flournoy, the coach who recruited Defoe, tells The QT about the one that almost got away
Darius Defoe with the 2021 BBL Cup. Credit: Newcastle Eagles

Let’s not beat around the bush here — when it comes to loyalty and longevity, Darius Defoe is part of a dying breed. We may never see his like again.

His legacy, his achievements and his contribution to the North East will live on long after he finally calls time on his decorated playing career.

But he’s still going strong, by the way!

He was a kid when he first came to Newcastle Eagles. Now, he’s a pillar of the organisation. Darius is one of a kind.

How many modern-day athletes commit 20 years to one club? How many of those athletes win 27 trophies in that time? It just doesn’t happen. In basketball or in any other sport.

Darius could — and possibly should — have moved on many times since 2004 and I don’t mind admitting that I found him some incredible opportunities overseas during my time as coach of the Eagles.

There were occasions when he promised me he’d consider a great offer here, or an even better offer there, and, for the sake of his career, I wouldn’t have stood in his way had he wanted to leave.

Darius (left) with Newcastle Eagles MD Paul Blake and Fabulous Flournoy breaking ground at the Vertu Motors Arena site. Credit: Newcastle Eagles

But I’d always find him back at practice the following day after he’d decided to stay put. He has always loved Newcastle, has always loved playing in front of the Eagles fans and has always found plenty of reasons to stick with what he knows. He just couldn’t walk away.

Darius takes immense pride in wearing the Newcastle jersey and in representing the city. Some guys are just like that. When he came up here for the first time from London, the only thing he wanted to do was go home again. Now, you couldn’t pay him to leave the North East.

I’m incredibly proud of Darius, of what he’s achieved and of the man he’s become. I coached him for many, many years and I’m proud to have been the most consistent influence on his career. 

Now, as he looks forward to spending time on court with former team-mates, friends and rivals in the British basketball community gather at the Vertu Motors Arena to celebrate a truly special player and person, I couldn’t be happier for him.

It’s the very least Darius deserves after devoting his career to the club.

But I often wonder what might have been had this unknown teenager from Hackney not got under my skin!

Darius during the first decade of his Eagles career

When I first heard about Darius it was a very different time at the club. It was a period before we’d won anything but I’d built a core of key players and I wanted to add certain pieces to that group to take us to the next level.

We had a solid foundation but back then it was really difficult to persuade players to come to Newcastle. There was no history of success, no legacy and certainly nothing like the Vertu Motors Arena. 

We were just an outpost in the North East of England and I was perceived as a player-coach who didn’t really know what he was doing. Back then the Eagles weren’t exactly a big draw!

But I knew what we needed to do. I kept going down to London to try to recruit players but I got the same ‘Hollywood’ response — ‘just call me’ — time and time again without actually getting anywhere. 

Then Tony Garbelotto, the Newcastle coach before me, got in touch to say that there were a couple of young players that he thought I’d like. One was Darius and one was a guy called Perry Lawson.

I went back down to London but both of them were really hesitant about coming up to Newcastle. Darius didn’t say much — but then he didn’t say much for 15 years!

Anyway, I finally convinced the two of them to come up to play in a tournament on Tyneside. I said I’d look after everything and at that point I had to persuade the owner, Paul Blake, that these two were actually worth our time and money.

Darius scoring the first points at the Vertu Motors Arena. Credit: Newcastle Eagles

He wasn’t convinced and, like everyone else, didn’t think we had any chance of getting two guys from London. In the back of my mind, I probably agreed.

But, like I say, Darius had gotten under my skin. I knew Perry would be perfect as an understudy to our senior guard TJ Walker but Darius was the wildcard. I really wanted to see him suit up for Newcastle.

Right from the start Darius looked perfect for the team that I was trying to build. He fitted like a glove.

He was raw — he was only 17 — but he was a real specimen getting up and down the floor. He looked like a high-energy, low maintenance player. Darius wasn’t the sort of guy who’d demand the ball but he knew how to do a job.

As soon as I saw him I was like ‘right, that’s the missing piece’. 

Suddenly my number one goal was to keep him in Newcastle. I just had a feeling that if we let him go at that point then we’d never see him again. He’d played so well and the word would get out. I knew he’d get offers so I thought about what I could do to entice him to stay.

I’m a straight shooter. I call it like it is. I let Darius know where I stood but, at the same time, I made it clear that I had no intention of letting him go.

I wanted him to help us but I knew I could help him. Helping us to help him was the key to Newcastle’s success — he just didn’t know it and I don’t think he would have believed it.

Find out more about the man behind the myth…

If he’d gone back to London for good then I honestly don’t believe he’d be the Darius Defoe we see today. I knew that once he got back there, he’d get an offer and find it very difficult to leave. I also feared he’d find it difficult to fulfil his true potential. 

London is his home and it has a vibe and an energy all of its own. As a New Yorker I can relate to that — leaving the Bronx was one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make. But I had to paint a picture of Newcastle as a viable alternative to London.

I wanted to grow Darius’ game and teach him things that nobody else would teach him. I already had plans for him to go to college in the US and to play in Europe and even have a shot at the NBA.

Ok, so that didn’t quite work out! But the point is, I could see his potential from day one.

For him to realise that potential it meant I’d have to work with Darius day in, day out for the next four years. He needed to be on our timeline with experienced senior players who could lift his game. I’ve always been in favour of injecting veterans with some fresh blood — that’s still how I still work now in the NBA.

But Darius didn’t know what to think. He’d come up to Newcastle because he loved playing basketball but he’d never considered staying for a while.

I said I’d look after him for the weekend, get him somewhere to stay, feed him and make him feel at home. He had very little life experience but I wanted to show him that this would be a good place to start.

Darius and fellow British Basketball League veteran Mike Tuck (15) will go head to head in this weekend’s Legends Game

He said ok but when I went to find him the next day he’d gone. He’d already jumped on a train back to London!

Now if it wasn’t Darius I’d have cut my losses there and then. But that kid had something and I couldn’t let it go.

He started ducking my calls and I didn’t know what to do next. But we had signed his friend Perry. Until that point the pair of them had done everything together so I asked Perry what I should do next. He admitted it would be tough to get Darius back and said the only thing I could do was head to London — again — and take one last shot.

I followed him to every practice, every place, every tournament. Wherever Darius showed up, I was there too.

He had a couple of bad situations down there where things didn’t work out the way he’d been promised. And that’s what counted in my favour.

I was honest with him and told him exactly how things would go in Newcastle. He trusted me and I think his family trusted me too. They reinforced what I was saying and that was the turning point.

But maybe I sold it too well! Twenty years later he’s still here and his love for the Eagles — and commitment to the community — has become a gift as well as a curse.

Like I said, he’s missed out on so many opportunities to grow his career. But at the same time he’s experienced something that no other player in the club’s history has.

Early footage of Darius Defoe showing his dunking prowess

Darius has travelled the entire journey. He’s won everything and even taken Newcastle into Europe — realising the ambition of generations of Eagles players before him. 

I’m no longer Darius’s coach but we’ll always be friends. We’ll still pick up the phone to one another and have a heart to heart. Darius doesn’t have to listen to me any more but he does — he still gives me that respect.

I’ll always love and appreciate him for that and for everything else he’s done for me, the Eagles, the city of Newcastle and the North East of England.

Back in the early days, even before we’d won a single title, we used to describe ourselves as ‘The Show’. We were the only show in town when it came to reaching for success and doing whatever it took to achieve that success.

In 2024 the show’s still in town. And the undeniable star of that show? Darius Defoe. 

Fabulous Flournoy is assistant coach to Nick Nurse at NBA franchise Philadelphia 76ers. He was Newcastle Eagles’ player-coach from 2003-2019.

Tickets for the Darius Defoe Legends Game, on Saturday June 15, are available via 

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