Nino Severino: The inspirational story of basketball phenomenon Esther Little

The master and the student - Ipswich coach Nick Drane and the inspirational Esther Little. Picture: PAVEL KRICKA

The master and the student - Ipswich coach Nick Drane and the inspirational Esther Little. Picture: PAVEL KRICKA

In his latest column. Nino Severino shares a very special story about an inspirational young Ipswich basketball player and her coach, local legend Nick Drane.

Esther Little, left, celebrates leading her Under 16 Ipswich side to the national title. Picture: PAVEL KRICKAEsther Little, left, celebrates leading her Under 16 Ipswich side to the national title. Picture: PAVEL KRICKA

This week has seen me having meetings with a range of sports coaches, including Nick Drane, the master basketball coach who is creating a world class legacy in Ipswich.

Both myself and Nick, who is currently coaching at Ipswich Basketball Club and Academy based at Copleston High School, go a long way back, back to a point where we were both trying to cut it at being fledgling coaches.

What I can remember about those early days was the fact that we both had very big dreams about our career paths. We both came across each other in a multi-sport programme which was based at a school in a deprived area of Ipswich, and our job was to introduce the positivity of sport to young children. Our meeting started with a lot of reminiscing, and led onto the great opportunities that lay ahead for both of us.

We talked a lot about the talented athletes that we are both coaching, and in Nick’s case, it did not surprise me when he brought up the name of Esther Little.

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Anybody who’s in the world of basketball in Great Britain will know who Esther is, she is without doubt one of the most talented basketball players in the UK.

In 2015 I presented Esther, then just 13, with the award named after my wife, “The Elena Baltacha Award” at the Suffolk Sports Awards.

I present this award every year, and I am always sent the background information of the recipient of my wife’s award, and I have to admit, that when I was reading the information about Esther, it brought me to tears.

Part of the reason she won the award was because only days after the heartbreak of losing her mother to cancer, Esther boarded a plane to Copenhagen, to make her international basketball debut for England, as part of their u15 development squad.

The award was in recognition of her incredible bravery to continue with the national team so soon after such a tragic event. Esther was experiencing all this heartache, at the same time I was grieving deeply after the loss of my wife, so it was a tragic life experience that I could understand and have a connection with.

There’s a great saying, and its one Elena used to use so often: “Nino, what doesn’t break you, makes you.”

And for sure, this is exactly what Esther has achieved through her attitude, strength and spirit. Since 2015, Esther has represented England at the u16 European Championships, and then after the home nations merged to become GB Basketball, she again went to the u16 European championships in 2017, where she was the team’s best player.

Esther Little leading the charge for Ipswich. Picture: PAVEL KRICKAEsther Little leading the charge for Ipswich. Picture: PAVEL KRICKA

She is away again this summer with the GB u18 women, again as the youngest player on the team.

This is such a great story, an example of the human spirit, and how sport can shape our lives, and make us the personality and characters that can endure the hardships and knocks that life can so often inflict on us.

What makes Esther’s story extra special is the strength she had to find atsuch a young age, to come through this very dark period, and finally emerge as a young champion, with a very exciting life as a professional basketball player ahead of her.

Esther of course had the support of her father and family, and the guidance of one of the best basketball coaches in Great Britain, our very own Mr Drane.

Since 2015 Esther has trained and played under of Nick and his team of coaches at the club. The two have enjoyed a phenomenal string of successes, and Nick told me at our meeting, “Esther’s physical talent and natural ability for basketball is obvious, you don’t need to be a basketball expert to know that.

“But, what caught my eye with Esther was the way she dealt with such tragedy, and seemed to use it to fuel her desire to be successful”.

Esther Little is considered the best basketball player in the country for her age. Picture: PAVEL KRICKAEsther Little is considered the best basketball player in the country for her age. Picture: PAVEL KRICKA

I suppose these are the moments that test the saying above, and for sure, this was a point of life that Esther decided she was certainly not going to be broken!

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In the subsequent three years Esther has led her age group Ipswich teams to two straight National League Final Fours, a junior national title and most significantly, became a crucial part of the Ipswich Senior Women’s team that completed a historic treble winning season in 2017/18, winning the National League, National Playoffs and National Cup.

Nick said, “Esther’s commitment to get better and willingness to be coached, every day, has meant that we have been on a real journey together. I pride myself as a coach on knowing my players, and with Esther, it’s not hard to see why such a strong coach/player bond is there.

“She’s inspired me with her bravery, work ethic and tenacity and she came along at a time when I needed a new challenge, so Esther, along with the rest of the players in our women’s team have really lit a fire in me - and we are only just getting started.

“I can’t really articulate how proud I am of her. She’s special.”

Esther Little celebrates another title. Picture: PAVEL KRICKAEsther Little celebrates another title. Picture: PAVEL KRICKA

My column gives me the privilege of voicing my opinion to tens of thousands of readers, and I’m going to use this opportunity to give Nick Drane a massive pat on the back.

Nick is what I would call an old school coach, highly skilled, extremely talented, tough, but caring and supportive. With this toughness comes an unlimited amount of loyalty and commitment to the athletes in his charge.

As one great coach once said to me, “results don’t lie Nino” – in the case of Nick, this is certainly true!

In Ipswich we have some of the UK’s best coaches, and I’m very proud that Nick is one of them.

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