When people think of Scotland, basketball rarely comes to mind.
Cultural staples like kilts, bagpipes and soccer? Absolutely.
Duquesne basketball on Pittsburgh Sports Now is sponsored by The Summit Academy: setting young men on the path to a better future.
But basketball? Not so much.
If former Duquesne Duke Kieron Achara can help it, though, basketball will not always be an afterthought in the country where he was born and raised. After years of bouncing around various leagues throughout Europe, the 34 year-old center has returned to Scotland to play out the remainder of his professional basketball career, and he is back with a purpose that extends beyond the boundaries of a basketball court.
“It means everything, to be fair,” Achara said, on returning to Scotland. “Basketball is not really a major sport in Scotland, and the fact that I got the opportunity to go and travel the world, and see many great countries through basketball, I’m hoping to inspire the next generation in Scotland to do the same. Being at home, it’s a little more palpable; they can see me there. I think it really, really helps give me a little bit more purpose towards the end of my career.”
Listed at 6-feet-10 inches tall and 240 pounds, Achara is the captain and starting center for the Glasgow Rocks, one of the British Basketball League’s top clubs. Averaging 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, Kieron has helped the Rocks achieve a top-4 position in league play approaching the midway point of the 2017/18 season. Still displaying the same defensive tenacity that earned him Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team honors at Duquesne, Achara is considered by many to be one of the top defenders in the B.B.L. He is also a popular and respected figure within the Scottish sporting community, and while he did not win any awards of his own, the center was selected as a presenter at the recent 2017 Scottish Sports Awards.
Returning to Scotland during the 2014/15 season, Kieron originally intended on inspiring the next generation through his on-court play and career experiences. However, in 2015, Kieron accepted a position with Scotland’s governing body of basketball, Basketball Scotland, opening an avenue through which he can facilitate change throughout his country’s entire basketball community.
“Basketball is definitely a developing sport [in Scotland]; something is definitely growing,” said Achara. “I was very fortunate to get in touch with our local governing body of sport – of basketball in Scotland – and I applied for a job when I came back. Of all the classes of professional basketball players, technically I’m semi-professional in the sense that I’m also working six hours a day, working on club development, and trying to build an infrastructure to help grow this sport within the country.”
Achara didn’t begin playing organized basketball until 16 years-old, primarily due to a sheer lack of opportunity and exposure to the sport as a child. As a Club Services Manager with Basketball Scotland, his job is to prevent the same thing from happening to other boys and girls who possess the desire to pursue a career in basketball.
“Essentially, I help with pathways. I’m trying to make the links with local schools and local academies, working from recreational activities to elite sport. I’m working to essentially build the pathway to make it that when you start playing basketball from a young age, there’s a pathway to go and succeed in this sport.”
As a natural-born hoopster who witnessed the inadequacies of Scotland’s basketball foundation first hand, Kieron is a perfect fit for his position with Basketball Scotland. He recognizes the challenges they must overcome, and the improvements that must occur, before basketball can truly blossom in his country.
“It’s very different from in the States – the fact that you can go and essentially play basketball whenever you want in some type of gym. It’s a lot more restricted here. Sports halls and hiring out a facility costs a lot of money. For a lot of kids, you can’t afford to actually go and play this sport. That’s one of the biggest hurdles we’re trying to overcome at this time.
“The other thing is, culturally, we’re such a soccer-based culture. It’s really hard for minority sports to break through. For a lot of people in Scotland, it’s either soccer or nothing. There’s a lot of minority sports that are trying to find the way.
“And finally, the education. We don’t have as strong of a pathway to carry on your formal education, as well as playing this sport at a higher level.”
Even if Achara and Basketball Scotland can enhance the infrastructure of basketball in Scotland, the question remains of whether or not the country produces the quality of athlete required to break out on a global scale.
“For me, I’m a firm believer that talent is something that’s worked on, and I believe that we have all the raw attributes that a lot of athletes have in the States,” said Kieron. “I just believe that we don’t have enough time on task, and there’s a lack of competition. I feel that a lot of our younger kids, if they were to leave at a younger age, and they were put in the same environments – you know, a lot of the top high school programs there in the States – I think our kids would definitely succeed.”
Another factor that affects the growth of basketball in Scotland, and the other countries of Great Britain for that matter, is overseas exposure. Players like Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, who have both represented Great Britain’s national team during their careers, achieved success in the N.B.A. in recent years. Achara asserts that more players from Great Britain are starting to continue their careers in the United States, citing Kyla Nelson of Worthing, England as example. Nelson, who represents Great Britain in international competition, is a freshman guard on the Pitt Women’s Basketball squad.
Since 2008, Achara has competed internationally on Great Britain’s senior national team himself. Now serving as the team’s captain, he was a heavy contributor on the 2012 squad which competed in the London Olympics, and remains one of a few players from that team to still represent Great Britain today. Playing for Great Britain has provided a constant in Kieron’s playing career while he bounced team to team, and country to country, at the club level.
“I’ve been playing for G.B. now for ten, eleven seasons. I know the players. Obviously, we’ve had different coaching staffs and so forth. It means something to put on that jersey and play for your country. When you play as a professional, it’s very, very different, because maybe one year you’re on one team, one year you’re on another team – maybe even in a different country. It’s hard to get that kind of consistency and stability. So definitely playing for my country, it means everything. Getting to play in front of my family, my friends, and hear that national anthem – it’s definitely a big deal.”
Great Britain recently concluded its first pair of 2019 World Cup qualifying games, losing close contests to Greece and Estonia. Despite the disappointing start to the World Cup campaign, Achara remains positive with four games left in the group stage.
“We’re very confident, to be fair. Even though we got off to a really bad start, I really feel that we’re capable of beating everyone we play in those qualifiers.
“Right now, I think it’s just finding a way to gel … We have a new coach (Tony Garbelotto). A few of the players who were not with us in September are now back with us – just coming back from injuries and so forth. I feel that we were very unfortunate in the first couple of games. I think maybe they came a week too early. I feel that when we play Israel in February, we will be ready to go.”
In addition to playing for Great Britain, Achara also represents Scotland in international competition. At the age of sixteen, the native of Stirling, Scotland became the youngest player in history to play for the country’s senior team. And while wearing Great Britain’s jersey serves as a tremendous honor for Kieron, there is something uniquely special about representing his home nation.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen Braveheart,” Achara asked with laughter. “Scotland is just a different level. I’m very, very proud to play for Great Britain and be the captain of the Great Britain team, but us Scots are very, very proud Scots. Playing for Scotland is very different in the sense that most of our players are not professional. I would actually say only half of us are professional now. But we find a way.”
Scotland is preparing for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, which begin in early April. Although it should come as no surprise, Kieron serves as captain for the Scottish national team, just as he does for Great Britain and Glasgow. With captainship bestowed upon him by so many teams throughout his career, there must be a reason behind this commonality other than mere coincidence.
“Maybe [I’m] level headed?” he pondered. “I don’t know. To be fair, my degree was in Leadership and Change Management, so I think that I learned some great traits from that. I had a great professor, Professor Naga [Sivasubramaniam], who was really influential in helping me see things through a different light and definitely become more self-aware. I think that becoming more self-aware, learning to balance with empathy, and understanding your teammates, I think that’s helped me through the years.”
A three-time captain at Duquesne, Achara enjoyed success throughout his five years as a Duke, both on and off the court. As a player, he finished his career with 1,240 career points and became the first Duke in program history to earn Atlantic 10 All-Defense honors (first-team, 2007). As a student, he was a three-time inclusion on the Atlantic 10 All-Academic Team and a two-time recipient of the Atlantic 10’s men’s basketball Student Athlete of the Year.
However, Kieron also encountered adversity during his career at Duquesne. In his junior season, Achara was named second-team preseason All-Atlantic 10 entering the season and seemed poised for a true breakout campaign. A torn labrum limited Kieron to three games that year, though, forcing the Scottish national to take a medical redshirt in place of pursing all-conference honors.
Kieron also experienced a tragic event that no individual should have to endure at any stage in life. He was a team captain in September 2006, when a gunman shot five Duquesne basketball players following an on-campus dance. Although he left the party shortly before the shooting occurred, the events of that night impacted the way Achara will forever view basketball and life.
“That was, for me, one of those situations that when you talk about motivation, and you talk about drivers, when you see one of your teammates in the hospital bed and essentially you’re told he’s not going to make it through the night, and he finds a way to survive – I mean you ask him why, and he says that he couldn’t think of life without basketball – that kind of puts everything in perspective. All those morning lifts and early morning runs, all that’s out the window, because at the same time people would be dying to have the opportunity you have to be on that court.
“One of the lessons I really learned is that basketball is basketball. But friendships, teammates, camaraderie, all of that gelling together is so much more powerful than anything you can do on the court. I’ve made some strong bonds through the years at Duquesne due to certain events, and I think for that we’re not just better basketball players – we’re better people.”
Social media allows Kieron to remain in touch with his former teammates, and he is proud of how each has fared in his respective walk of life. Achara, who often wears Duquesne clothing around Scotland with pride, also stays current on his alma mater’s basketball program.
After speaking with close friend and former Great Britain teammate Nate Reinking, Kieron is particularly optimistic about the direction in which Duquesne basketball is heading under head coach Keith Dambrot. Reinking, a Kent State alumni and the current head coach of the NBA D-League’s Canton Charge, is firmly entrenched within the Ohio basketball community. Upon Dambrot’s hire, Kieron and Nate discussed the reputation Dambrot earned while at Akron, and what he will bring to Duquesne in the upcoming years.
“The reputation of Coach Dambrot there: they just say he’s a workhorse,” relayed Kieron. “He just loves the game of basketball. And I think someone like that for the program is going to be very, very successful.”
Today, Kieron lives with his wife, Megan, who he met in 2010 and married in July of 2015. The two were introduced by one of Achara’s cousins, and the center immediately employed his self-proclaimed “smooth moves” to win her over. Together, they have a three year-old daughter, Adelyn, adding fatherly duties to the list of responsibilities Achara greets head-on every day. According to Kieron, it was the balance of family life and work that catalyzed his return to Scotland.
“That’s probably the trickiest thing,” he said, about balancing family with work. “And to be fair, that was the real reason I made the move back to Scotland; it was to just be closer to family. One year I was playing in Bulgaria, the next I was in Greece, Spain, wherever it may be. I thought just to get some consistency at home, and allow my daughter to be around family as well, would be very important.
“The balance can be quite demanding at times, but I’ve got a very supportive family – an understanding family – and they understand that whatever I do is for them. And for us. And because of that, I think we just find a way to make it work.”
As if his playing career, family and working with Basketball Scotland don’t consume enough time, Kieron is also completing his Master’s degree in Leadership and Management. With so many responsibilities, one must wonder what inspires the former Duke’s relentless motor.
“If I knew the answer to that, I’d be a very, very wealthy man,” joked Achara. “I’ve always had the mantra of, ‘Be the best I can be, on and off the court.’ And that’s always been something that’s driven me through all my years of playing basketball. I’ve always been very self-driven, and I’ve always believed that if you give your absolute best at whatever you do, you will see success. So that’s going to be your driver.
“Obviously now things have changed; I’ve got my wife and my beautiful daughter. I’ve kind of got an extra added purpose to try and make them proud of me, and be able to provide for them, as well. I guess it’s just always finding something to motivate and keep you going.”
At 34 years-old, retirement looms around the corner for Glasgow’s big man, although an exact time frame remains undetermined.
“I wouldn’t even say that’s a game-to-game thing; that’s a day-to-day thing,” he admits. “I’m 34 now. Some days I wake up and I’m thinking, ‘Why am I still doing this?’ But at the same time, I just love basketball. I’ve been very fortunate to be working in basketball, as well with the governing body.”
With his position at Basketball Scotland and a Master’s degree on the way, the future holds much promise for Achara once his playing career concludes. Amidst all of the promise lies an equal amount of uncertainty, though, and even the bravest, most prepared men experience fear when faced with the unknown.
“That’s something I wish I had the answer to,” said Achara, regarding his plans after basketball. “I feel that in the past, being 6-foot-9, basketball is the path you’re supposed to take. After basketball, I really have no idea what I’m going to do, and it’s probably the scariest time of my life not knowing. That’s why I stay very, very busy just trying to give myself some options. But at the same time, I really could not tell you what I’ll be doing in the next two years.
“The one thing I could say is what I’m passionate about. If I could find a way to help others have the same opportunities I’ve had, if I could do that as a job, that would be my ultimate dream.”
He added, ““I definitely want to be involved with this sport. No matter what I do.”
As a man who understands the value of education, one of Achara’s longtime goals has been to start an academy that assists Scotland’s young athletes become young student-athletes. Ideally, this academy would develop strong ties with the United States, as well as other areas of Europe, allowing student-athletes to continue their academic and playing careers in countries where basketball prospers.
Kieron Achara may not know where he is going, but he knows where he has been and how his past experiences have put him where he is today. With that in mind, he had one final message for Duquesne fans concerning the state of his current life, and how his alma mater has led him to this point.
“I would say [life] is going very, very well, and I’m thankful for the opportunities at Duquesne. I learned so much, not just from an academic standpoint, but from a cultural standpoint. I was definitely looked after when I was in university. I feel that it’s given me such a positive kind of outlook that I really, really hope so many more student athletes can get that opportunity from Scotland, to go over to a school – an organization – like Duquesne.”