The COVID-19 pandemic halted sports leagues in Malta for two consecutive years, however, the 2021-22 basketball season suffered no effects of long covid as it ran through from start to finish, with all cup competitions and the league titles finding new winners this year.
New league winners Starlites FIJO had been dominant for the past three years and just a few weeks ago, the Naxxar side finally had something to show for it with the Division One trophy, after a 3-0 sweep of Mellieħa Libertas in the playoff finals.
Speaking to the Times of Malta, Starlites coach Paul Ferrante said commitment was the difference-maker for his side’s success this season.
“If I were to say that it was a case of ‘hard work pays off’, I believe it would be a disservice to all the other teams because I think that we all worked hard for this season’s honours, we all trained here (at Ta’ Qali), some of whom trained later than us at times depending on the time-slots available,” Ferrante explained.
“I think that more than hard work, it was the commitment from a number of people – committee members, supporters, players, their families, and especially the Starlites setup.
“If you were to look at the past three years, we have always been leading the table. The first two years, unfortunately, had no play-offs due to COVID-19 and the effort was not recognised.
“For us, this (title win) was important because it represents all of this.”
Starlites finished the regular season with an impressive 13-2 record, taking the first seed with a few games to go ahead of the play-offs.
However, this season’s post-season faced another hiccup right before the start, when second seed Hibernians’ clash with Depiro BC caused controversy throughout the local basketball community. The incident, which showed both sides tanking the game, also made its way into the international media.
As a result of this, both sides were barred from the playoffs, forcing an immediate set of finals between Starlites and Mellieħa.
“I think it was a shame that this episode ran out of hand so much, and all of this for a placing,” Ferrante admitted.
“Ultimately, the team they were trying to avoid, we beat them 3-0 – so that says a lot.
“We were disappointed that Hibs were disqualified because we had another score to settle with them – the final of this year’s Shield which went into overtime, something I feel should have never happened because of certain mistakes.
“The next day, in fact, I met with the players and I congratulated them and told them that while on the books, Hibs had taken the Shield, they had done what was asked of them and they could not have done anything more than that – they deserved the praise.
“If you look at the games between us (and Hibs), bar the Shield and other cups, we beat them three times and they beat us twice.
“This year, there was also a specific regulation which gave more importance to our wins against Hibs – the one which states that if 80% of the season is played, the team in the lead would win the title.
“So, one can say that every game we played against Hibs was like a final. We managed to keep our top spot in the table with a game or two ahead, so I think it was important overall.”
A known factor of every winning side is the collective effort of the squad.
This season, Starlites’ squad was based in its majority on its homegrown element, with the addition of Kurt Xuereb who joined from Depiro, and American import players Jacob Bates, Myles Thomas and Jamiah Windom Haynes.
“I believe there was the nucleus of the team, bar Kurt Xuereb who joined us this year – and I’m thankful that he joined us because we felt his presence on the court – was coming from our nursery. It says a lot when I had six out of 12/13 players in my squad, who were also part of the Under-23 and were part of the team that won the league this year – they were also leading the standings last year,” Ferrante said.
“The foreign players, two of whom were on the court at the same time with another for rotation – because no one can play the whole game – had a great impact. Even if you look at the statistics and the points they put up, this is very clear.
“However, we have always looked for guys who are team players and we insist that these players play well with the others, and in the way we play.”
While the team rests for the summer ahead of the new season, a number of local players will have wanted to impress ahead of the FIBA Small Countries Games held in Malta between June 28 and July 3.
In last year’s event, Starlites’ Alec and Ian Felice Pace, Kurt Xuereb, and Matthew Scerri were part of Andrea Paccarie’s squad and they will be hoping for renewed confidence from new Malta coach Alan Walls. Ferrante believes it is vital for players to get such an experience.
“Obviously, players for the squad are chosen by the coach but last year, Alec (Felice Pace), Ian (Felice Pace), Kurt Xuereb, and Matthew (Scerri) were all in the rotation. I think it is a very important thing that these players get the experience, especially when our league stops for four to five months,” he said.
“Most of all, they get to train at a high level with players who play overseas, like Kurt Cassar, Samuel Deguara, Tevin, and Aaron Falzon. It is important because just like our import players raise the level here, these (Malta international) players raise both our average height and also the level of the game. The fact that our players get this opportunity is a big plus.”
While the men’s game boasts no less than ten Maltese players plying their trade overseas, professionally or at student-athlete level, players taking the court here in Malta face the setback of having very little competition.
Asked about the possibility of taking a step further as a club, Ferrante believes that it is something that is discussed frequently.
“(International participation) has happened before with other clubs and has also been mentioned in one of our meetings where we have discussed the possibility of it happening,” he said.
“Certainly, it would be a great motivation for our players to make such an achievement. I think the level that we have and that of others is different, but there is also the notion of how many foreign players one can have on the court.
“I believe that there are categories we could fit in, even if preliminaries, and that one could play to try to get into these tournaments. I think it is a beautiful thing, and an important thing. Obviously, there are logistics behind all this, so it takes much more.
“But to bring teams here and to go and play in their country is a positive thing.”