Friday 24 July 2020 09:44, UK
My decision to sign with French club Le Mans was fuelled by my competitive edge and inspired by my recent experiences with Team GB and a genuine love of basketball, says Sky Sports analyst Ovie Soko.
After spending a pandemic-truncated season with the London Lions in the British Basketball League, Soko has signed a one-year deal with LNB Pro A club Le Mans Sarthe Basket and will move to France on August 10.
You will still be able to watch Ovie every week alongside Mo Mooncey and Jaydee Dyer on Heatcheck, Sky Sports' debate show, and read his thoughts on the NBA on skysports.com and the Sky Sports app.
It's a one-year deal with Le Mans. I am excited that they have taken a chance on me given that I have come from what a lot of people will consider a year out. I am confident in what I'm capable of.
Ultimately, this move is really about me being true to myself and doing something that I love, and following something that I have invested so much time into already. This is definitely coming from the basketball side of me pulling my heartstrings.
This past year has obviously been a whirlwind. There has been so much opportunity, there have been so many great things and great relationships that I've been able to build. What I have learned from this whole thing is that I can't put myself in a box. I feel like by putting myself in one box I am limiting myself.
With basketball, I definitely know I have more to give and the game is something I genuinely love.
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I definitely don't think moving to France means I am closing all other doors, it's just me going to where I feel like I need to be in this point in my life. I feel like I can still learn more and grow more through basketball and in life in general.
The London Lions situation was an interesting situation, but also a tricky one. I feel like this last year was really experimental (in terms of) trying to balance being able to play with off-the-court responsibilities.
The level was clearly not the level I had been playing at before and that meant I wasn't necessarily getting fulfilment out of competing at a level that really pushed me and challenge me mentally. I felt like I was no longer growing as a basketball player. Feeling like I was not moving forward in something I have put a lot of time and effort into left me maybe not enjoying off the court stuff as much as I really should have at times.
I see opportunity at Le Mans. I haven't been playing in one of the top leagues in Europe over the last season so there is a certain aspect of it where it will be a readjustment period. I'm more than confident of being able to readjust. There's that little competitive edge of me knowing that there are a lot of people within the sport or basketball community that would write me off at this point.
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That's cool, it's not a crazy thing for them to think or to say if you looked at my whole situation. But I know and I feel very different about that. It's about having that spark again. The reasons I'm going to France are not the same as the reasons I might have been playing for prior to my stint here in the UK.
As the athlete, you're generally playing for your next contract because as much as you love the game you're playing to make a living. The responsibility of having to make a living, that side of things does kick in. This year has given me a nice little boost and it allows me to go back and play because I really love playing. I missed it.
The last international window with 'GB' in February was a real eye-opener for me. We went to Montenegro and then we came home to play in front of a great crowd in Newcastle and playing in those two environments sort of re-opened my eyes.
When we came out the tunnel in Montenegro it was a packed stadium and the European fans made it feel like a football crowd inside an arena. Everything about the whole environment just really threw me back into almost the level I had been playing at before.
My first thought was, 'oh man, I really missed this'. It almost sent a jolt through my body. Playing against guys that are playing at a high level held me accountable just by their skill levels. And I really enjoyed it. It gave me a real boost. That was a big moment for me this year.
I played against Le Mans in the last year I was with (Spanish ACB club) UCM Murcia. I feel like they are looking for somebody to fill a leadership role. I am going to give 100 per cent, bring my experience and play to win every single game. I'll bring scoring, I'll bring rebounding, I'll bring toughness and I'll bring good communication.
Coaching has always been a big deal for me and to go to somewhere where I think they do have high expectations is great, it has its own challenges. I'm sure it's not going to be a smooth ride by any means, when you talk about building anything substantial it never really is. But I know we have a chance as long as we do things the right way from day one.
I'm just really looking forward to getting back in that environment. My blood is pumping! As I told my trainer when I told him about my move, I'm willing to put in the work necessary to get me back ready to play at a very high level, just let me know what I have to do.
French basketball is extremely exciting and they have a lot of very, very talented players. It's a very fast-paced game and I think it's an exciting style of basketball. For me, the French style of basketball is closer to the American style of basketball than traditional European basketball, for sure.
The French crowds are great. I remember playing in the second division in France in my first year as a professional. That crowd down there in Bouzalac, they were really loud and really energetic. They have a good basketball IQ over there and they love the sport. Basketball is a big thing in France. I'm looking for a crowd that creates a great atmosphere for us and is invested in the team.