Tokyo Time has teamed up with Swish productions and respected sports journalist Mo Stewart, to bring you an exclusive interview with Leicester Riders star Josh Ward-Hibbert ahead of the Play-Off Finals on Sunday the 19th May.
Josh Ward-Hibbert has only had 3 seasons in the BBL, and all of them have ended in the Playoff final. In fact in each of the first two, the Leicester Riders managed to pick up a hat trick of trophies. This year they're heading to the O2 searching for their first, but the 25-year old Shooting-Guard has had a breakout year, with an increase in minutes reflected in his productivity.
Like many alumni of Loughborough University, Ward-Hibbert is a talented sportsman, with impressive junior careers in Basketball and Tennis. Despite claiming the Australian Open boys doubles title, and the fastest ever serve by a Junior, our conversation told me that once he chose full-time Basketball, he's never looked back.
Swish: This has been your 3rd full season as a Leicester Rider, and the numbers show it's been your best yet - points, rebounds and assists are all on the rise. How pleased are you with your game right now?
JWH: I'm definitely pleased. I feel like I've been playing good Basketball, and improving. It's been great for me this season to get the opportunity to showcase what I can do and show what I can bring to the team.
Swish: Are you feeling more established within the squad now, more confident that the team and the fans know what you can do?
JWH: I definitely feel more confident within myself, but regarding the team, I wouldn't say so. Throughout my years there's been quite a few guys who have stayed around, so a lot of the faces are familiar. As a group, we're so comfortable. It's like a little family, as we all know each other very well, so even when I wasn't getting as many minutes as I am now, I still believe that if I was called upon everyone in the team had confidence in me, and wanted me to do well. We trained hard, really going at it in practice, so they knew what I could do.
Swish: Your team has been very successful since you arrived, but this season has been a bit harder. You've had a European campaign to contend with (The Basketball Champion's League) which meant your season started earlier than the other BBL teams. How did you deal with those challenges?
JWH: Looking back I wouldn't describe them as challenges, more opportunities. It was a great opportunity to play at such a high level, against teams in different countries and different leagues. It's amazing to be a part of something like that, because at the end of the day that's what we all want to do – play at the highest level possible, against the best guys that you can. It's been tough because we have had a lot of games; there were times when we had three games a week – playing Wednesday, travelling Thursday and then another game Friday. I think we dealt with it as best we could at the time - we made sure as a team we planned for everything and gave ourselves enough time, and then everything else you just take as it comes. For me and many of the guys it was our first European cup action, so it's kinda just “We're in this as a team together; we're gonna come across obstacles, but as long as we stay together and work through them, we'll hopefully get some good results”. We maybe didn't get all of the results that we wanted to, but we stayed together, and now I feel like we're playing the best Basketball we have all year, so it's perfect timing.
Swish: In playing against guys from different leagues that you don't get to see very often, was there any difference in the style of play, or maybe the speed or physicality, from what you experience week in and week out in the BBL?
JWH: Yeah, I think on the physicality side the difference was the refs. It was a more physical game, and the refs allowed it to be that way, which I really enjoyed personally. There was a bit more leeway with body contact – not necessarily fouling, just letting guys play. Obviously the European Cup is a tough level – there are some great teams in it, generally it was a bit of a step up for us, but as I said it's something that we had to plan for as best we could, prepare for each team, go out there and show them what we've got to offer. I believe we definitely did that in a few games – some got away from us, but we showed what we're about, and that we're not a team to be slept on.
Swish: Speaking from a fan's perspective I have to say I like it when the refs let you guys play. As long as they call it equally on both sides a little bit of bumping isn't going to hurt anybody!
JWH: I think as a fan it's definitely more enjoyable to watch. As a player, I'm pretty sure everyone on the offence is going to be complaining, but I think if you asked most players after the match maybe rather than straight after a call they'd say they enjoy the game when there's a bit more physicality, as long as it's called evenly both ways.
Swish: I wanna talk a bit about your story. It's been well documented that you made the transition from a successful junior career in Tennis into Basketball full time, having already played Division 1 Basketball with the Derby Trailblazers. I want to ask you less about making the decision, and more about the consequences of having made it. Have you felt any extra pressure to succeed having walked away from Tennis, or has it perhaps been the opposite, and you've felt freer after making the decision?
JWH: Um.........no one's put it that way before! I'd probably say I've felt freer. Obviously, I played Basketball alongside Tennis growing up, so it's not completely new to me, but I did stop when I was 17 to fully focus on Tennis. I think it was a release of pressure. Tennis was a full-time job, a career that I believed I'd be doing for many years to come, so in that sense, there was pressure on me to perform. I feel in Basketball, just playing out there I feel freer. It's enjoyable.
Also, I guess coming from a single sport......I did have a great team around me at the Academy - I couldn't have asked for more in that sense - but coming from an individual sport to a team sport made the transition a lot easier than it would have been the other way around. I was always going to have good days and bad days, in your performance level and just how you're feeling. It's difficult when you're by yourself to manage those times, but in a team, especially a team like we have here at Leicester, it helps. A lot of the guys are good friends, and Basketball or no Basketball we will remain in contact so it makes everything easier.
Swish: You joined an already successful team and helped them to kick on, winning three trophies in your first two seasons. It's kinda like KD and the Warriors, taking a great team and making them better.......
JWH: If I can ever be compared to KD I think it's a blessing!
Swish: No doubt! How helpful has it been to your development to be surrounded by guys who've been there and done it?
JWH: It's been massive. Obviously, I played at a decent level growing up, and even though I left the sport I didn't leave the sport, so I kept my body in good shape, but it's the mental side of Basketball, reading the game, that I needed to improve upon. When I first got to Leicester, the personnel around the team, players and coaches, were incredible - people who have played across Europe and in the BBL for many years, and more importantly had won a lot of things and knew how to win. There was a massive stage early on where I was just trying to learn as much and as quickly as I could, and it made it much easier that there were so many people that I could learn from, taking little bits from here and there. Everyone was more than happy to give me that help, and advice.
Swish: Finally I wanna ask you about your opponents this Sunday, the London City Royals. They have made big strides for a franchise in their 1st season. How impressed have you been with them this year?
JWH: It goes without saying that they've got some very talented players on their team that also have great experience, and are used to winning whether it's here or overseas. To come away with a trophy in their first year I've got nothing but praise for the – players, coaches, the whole club. We had some close battles this year, and I think it will be exciting to play them in the final. Hopefully, things will go our way.
Mo Stewart for Swish Productions