The Leicester Riders won the British Basketball League (BBL) regular season last week, confirming them as the top seed heading into the playoffs this month. This title also means that AARON FALZON becomes the first-ever Malta international to not only play in the BBL’s May Madness but also win the regular season title. Kurt Aquilina spoke to Falzon about this achievement…
Leicester are already the current title holders, which means that the side will be defending their crown when featuring in the playoffs tomorrow.
However, for Aaron Falzon this will have a sentimental value because his brother, and fellow Malta international, Tevin had played for the Bristol Flyers – their first-round opponents.
“We played Bristol a couple of weeks ago and we were down a couple of guys and we ended up losing by around 25 or 26 points,” Falzon explained.
“We were looking at the standings at that point and you could see, and I talked to my brother about this, that we were probably going to play them in the playoffs so there’s a little bit extra incentive.
“When we played them, they beat us pretty heavily, but we’ve got a lot more guys healthy and we’re a stronger team so we’re definitely excited to play them. I talk to Tevin about it all the time – he wishes me nothing but the best. He wants us to win by a lot.”
Added to that, being the first Malta player to achieve such a feat is something which Falzon cherishes, particularly coming off the back of the loss of his father Eric.
“It means a lot, especially with what I went through in November, losing my dad. He’s the one who gave me the last name Falzon,” he said.
“As I grew up, I got to understand more what that meant and as I got to experience Maltese basketball and the tournament we won in 2018, playing with my brother and with Falzon on my back.
“I know what it meant to him and to see us out there with our name and representing Malta, I know it meant a lot to him.
“Going forward, to be the first is a huge accomplishment but also I feel like the game of basketball is growing and I hope to get back there especially in the summer time to keep building on that success, but it’s definitely an accomplishment I’m proud of.”
While Falzon will be experiencing the highs of a successful season with the Riders in the BBL playoffs, his first season as a professional player out of the NCAA Division 1 with Quinnipiac started off in France with Etoile Angers in the NM1 league.
“I signed in September and there was a clause in my contract saying I was on a 15-week trial because they were trying to replace a guy which they didn’t have,” Falzon said.
“I got there, and I got past the first 15 days – they liked me, but they weren’t sure if the other guy was going to come back so they signed me for another month.
“The month went by and more COVID-19 stuff happened and they thought they could get the guy back, so they let me go.”
Following that setback, Falzon turned to Malta as a way to stay in the game before heading back to the US until he joined Leicester in December.
Asked about how close he was to signing with an MBA club, Falzon admitted “it was pretty close but it was more like a holdover if I didn’t find things so I would stay here and figure it out.
“It all happened so fast and with what happened with my father I had to leave,” Falzon said.
Falzon recalls how in December, his agent had called him proposing the UK.
“It was really intriguing at first because Tevin had played there and he told me how much he loved it when he played at Cheshire and Bristol and I talked to him about it and he was super excited – he was like Leicester’s a great team, they’re one of the best if not the best so I got on the phone with coach Rob (Paternostro) and we talked about it and we thought I was a good fit,” the Malta forward said.
Now having completed the regular season with the BBL champions, Falzon reckons the side can go on and win the postseason tournament as well.
“I think we can win the whole thing. I think we have the team to do it – the guys are coming together better and there’s a kind of feeling that it’s been a long season, it’s a long grind and they’re motivated again,” he explained.
“We’ve got a tough two weeks ahead of us, but I think we can come together and win the whole thing. I think that would be huge as there’s four championships so if we could win two of those, we’d be undoubtedly the best team in the league and there wouldn’t be any conversation about it.”
With FIBA set to decide by May 12 whether or not to organise the already-delayed Small Countries Championship in Ireland in June, Falzon insists playing together would mean a lot to the players on the team, who will be also defending their 2018 title which they won in San Marino.
“Last year it got cancelled so we were bummed out but then we heard about it again in February and we’ve been excited ever since,” Falzon explained.
“I’ve been keeping close tracks on COVID-19 situation in Malta and Ireland. So, I’m keeping my hopes up because I’d be really excited to go and defend the title.
“I know it’ll mean a lot to me and Tevin and the rest of the guys on the team.”
With health authorities announcing the return of contact sport training on May 10, this may give players in the Maltese league less than an ideal situation to get ready to defend their title.
“It’s definitely a tough situation – a lot of people all around the world are experiencing different training environments. Some people can’t go to the gym, so people can’t even play basketball to a certain extent,” Falzon remarked.
“If we are able to have the opportunity and get the OK by the government and FIBA to go ahead and play, I’m certain the guys back in Malta will be really excited to get on the court and I know it’s a limited training time but it’s the world we live in today and I hope it won’t be for much longer, but I think the opportunity to defend our title will be something a lot of guys will look forward to.”
Asked about the expectation for this summer’s tournament he said: “I think if we get to play, it’ll be a bit different because we had our captain Roderick Vella and, who knows if Pete (Shoults) will still play. He had told me he was going to retire two years ago so we’ll see if he’ll be alright for this one.
“So, we have some older guys but there still is some of that younger core. I talk to Kurt (Cassar) a lot and I’ve seen his progression.
“He’s become a much better player and he’s going to be even better come this summer if we get to play so I think the dynamic will be a bit different but the expectations are still the same. I mean there’s no reason we shouldn’t go there and win gold.”