NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England — Fabulous Flournoy, the most celebrated figure in the history of the British Basketball League, wants to learn how to swim. Bear with him: He wants to learn how to swim so he can learn how to surf so he can improve his core stability and play basketball forever.
Flournoy, the 44-year-old player-coach of the Newcastle Eagles, had his second lesson on a recent afternoon. He wore goggles and a small flotation belt as he splashed around and listened to his instructor. Flournoy never learned how to swim when he was growing up in the South Bronx. But he is committed to warding off the march of middle age.
“When I want to do something, I do it now,” he said. “I don’t wait.”
Flournoy, deep into his 22nd season in the B.B.L., cannot stop. He cannot stop playing for the Eagles, who have employed him as a defense-minded wing since 2001. He cannot stop coaching them, either, a job he reluctantly agreed to take on the following season. But he sees no reason to slow down, not after reinventing his shooting stroke and reshaping his diet — even if he is one of the oldest pros in the world.
“In his mind, age doesn’t apply,” said Claire Forrester, whose husband, David, is Flournoy’s assistant coach. “It does to other people, to mere mortals, but not to him.”
Flournoy, who goes by Fab and has the chiseled physique of a decathlete, is the B.B.L.’s career leader in assists, steals, blocked shots, personal fouls and turnovers. In March, during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Prince William for his contributions to the sport and his community. Flournoy wore a new suit.
And then he returned to Newcastle, where he lives with the Forresters in their attic.
Flournoy, whose mother named him with the hope that he would believe in his own greatness, is neither rich nor particularly famous. If basketball has grown in popularity in England, it still lags far behind that of soccer — and maybe even darts. Newcastle’s annual operating budget of about £300,000, or $400,000, is rivaled by the weekly pay of elite soccer players in the Premier League.
At the same time, Newcastle United Football Club, which plays in a 52,000-seat stadium, has not won a top-tier championship since 1927. Flournoy has coached the Eagles to seven league titles. Paul Blake, the team’s owner, described Flournoy’s influence on British basketball as “absolutely massive.” But it remains a work in progress.
“The kids teach the parents about the sport,” Blake said. “Some of the parents have no idea.”
As the force behind the Eagles’ understated brand of excellence, Flournoy has found a home in one of Europe’s lesser-known leagues, packing his life with discoveries, big and small. He is the type of person who actually says things like, “That was a great discovery!” He once engaged in a two-year project to find the perfect shave. (After trying dozens of products, he settled on a Japanese-made feather blade.)
In his endless quest for self-preservation, Flournoy makes his own almond milk and presses his own juice. He concocts toothpaste out of baking soda and coconut oil. He keeps a bottle of special drops handy to measure the pH of the water that he drinks. He knows the difference between A1 milk and A2 milk, which come from different breeds of cows.
“I’ve done a lot of research on milk,” said Flournoy, who no longer drinks milk.
He devours books about diet and psychology and fitness. He recently lifted weights every day for six straight weeks. He owns two hula hoops — “The weighted one is downstairs,” he said — which he uses to build his transverse abdominal muscles. He practices yoga. He has a set of electric muscle stimulators. He does his own cupping therapy. He has completed home workout programs like p90x, p90x2 and Insanity.
And he abstains from alcohol except for one day of the year, on the anniversary of his older brother’s death. He drinks, he said, to remember.
Because while Flournoy cannot stop, neither can he forget.
At any moment, Flournoy is likely to be doing one of three things: coaching, training or giving a speech.
“I don’t sleep much,” he said.
His speeches — to students, to law firms, to car dealers — are events.
“If you’re in a room of 500 people, I guarantee there’s someone in there that lost a loved one,” he said. “I guarantee there’s someone that got bullied. I guarantee there’s someone that got mistreated. I guarantee there’s someone that wants to be more than what they are. I guarantee there’s someone that’s just like me.”
Flournoy delivers his speeches without notes. He laughs. He cries. He might mention how his father abused his mother when he was drunk and how she eventually left him, working to provide for her four children while shuffling them from one ragged building in New York to the next, where Flournoy and his siblings would cram into one bed.
“Two facing the headboard, two facing the foot,” he said.
As a child, Flournoy felt like an outsider. His feelings of isolation were especially acute, he said, because his older brother, James Divine Flournoy, who was known as Jimmy, was popular and athletic.
“He had this energy about him,” Flournoy said. “Everybody liked him.”
When Flournoy was in the first grade, a teacher at his school sensed his sadness. What followed was an act of kindness that Flournoy has never forgotten: an afternoon trip to the movies to see “Superman.” Flournoy saw himself in Clark Kent, the awkward outcast. But he also saw the potential of what he could become, and he began to believe.
“I knew from that moment on that I was going to find a place for myself in the world,” Flournoy said, “even if it took my entire life to do it.”
When Flournoy was in his early teens, his mother, Lucy Flournoy, found work at a nursing home and moved her family into public housing in the South Bronx. For the first time, Flournoy had some stability.
“I know everyone talks about how they’re trying to get out of the projects,” he said. “But we were trying to get into the projects.”
As for basketball, Flournoy did not start playing until his sophomore year at Jane Addams Vocational High School in the Bronx. He was no prodigy — far from it, in fact. But he was growing into his 6-foot 4-inch frame, and he dedicated himself to the game.
“I saw how all the other good basketball players had the sneakers and the track suits,” Flournoy said. “And all of a sudden, I became a jock and I found power and acceptance.”
Any dream Flournoy had of jumping to a high-level college program, though, was derailed by bad grades. A severe case of dyslexia went unidentified for years, he said, and even when teachers suspected he had a learning disability, no one knew how to address it.
Flournoy landed at Panola College, a junior college in Carthage, Tex., where he dreamed of graduating and advancing his basketball career. Panola was no picnic. During rare breaks from school, Flournoy would arm himself with a bucket of wings and a giant bottle of grape soda for the two-day bus trip home.
But he had a couple of influential professors, he said, who helped him work through his dyslexia. He learned to imagine words as pictures. He learned to read backward, from right to left, which reordered sentences in a way that made more sense to him. He learned about comma splices and coordinating conjunctions. Above all, he said, he learned how to learn.
Flournoy went on to major in criminal justice at McNeese State, in Lake Charles, La., where he said his senior year was clouded by the shooting death of his brother, Jimmy, at a nightclub in South Carolina. Even as he shielded his younger brother from the streets, Jimmy was involved in drugs. (“I just wasn’t built that way,” Fab said.) At his mother’s request, Fab avoided digging into the circumstances of his death.
“When I went back to bury him, I had some demons to deal with: Am I going to go after whoever did this? Or am I going to stay on my path?” Flournoy said. “Because I was determined to graduate on time, and my whole thing was that I wanted to play professional basketball. But who would give me a chance?”
As it turned out, no one — at least for a while. He returned home after graduation, moved back in with his family and got a job working security at a Baby Gap. Those were dark days, he said. He wondered why he had made so many sacrifices.
Flournoy had been back in the Bronx for about a year when he received a phone call from Nick Nurse, who was then the coach of the Birmingham Bullets of the B.B.L. The previous year, Nurse had taken Flournoy and several other college players on a barnstorming tour of England.
The phone call changed everything. The B.B.L. had altered its rules to allow more Americans. Nurse asked Flournoy if he was interested in playing for Birmingham. It would not make him wealthy. His weekly salary would start at around $200. But here was his chance.
“Yes,” Flournoy said, “I’m interested.”
Before a recent home game against the Leicester Riders, Flournoy was out on the practice court honing his shooting mechanics. The gym was otherwise empty. He talked to himself.
“There you go,” he said. “Eyes, eyes, eyes.”
Not so long ago, Flournoy relied on his athleticism as a jump shooter. But that changed in 2015, when he tore his right Achilles’ tendon.
The following season, sensing weakness, opponents left him open to shoot from the outside. But without the usual pop in his legs, Flournoy was lost. He knew he had to overhaul his approach. He applied to several summer shooting camps but was denied admission — largely because they were for teenagers. Flournoy was 42.
He reached out to an old friend.
“I remember him calling me and saying, ‘Coach, you’ve got to help make me a better shooter now that I’m getting older,’” said Nurse, now an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors.
Flournoy wound up spending about two weeks with Nurse in Las Vegas, where they simplified his motion. Flournoy now describes the entire process as his “shooting pilgrimage.” It was around this time that he also realized that he had to pay even more attention to nutrition.
“This is a guy who would put seven sugars in his tea,” said Blake, the Eagles’ owner.
Flournoy has been experimenting with his diet. He went vegan for eight months and vegetarian for another four. He later embarked on a fruitarian diet, a daunting expedition. For nearly three months, he consumed 30 to 40 bananas a day and shed about 35 pounds.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Flournoy said.
In recent weeks, back at his playing weight of 200 pounds, Flournoy has been weaning himself from a ketogenic diet, which is high in fat and low in carbohydrates. At the height of the diet, Flournoy was eating a block of grass-fed butter a day.
“I’d slice it up,” he said.
Flournoy is at the point now where he wants to combine the best elements of his culinary journey, having stuffed his refrigerator with vegetables and chicken thighs. It has come as some relief to the Forrester family — Claire and David, along with their two children, Rory, 9, and Matilda, 5 — who live downstairs and enjoy when Fab eats like a normal person. But he stills refers to “intermittent fasting” and “micronutrients” as if they are beloved childhood friends.
“I did speak to the doctor last year just to check that he wasn’t doing himself any harm,” David Forrester said.
It should be noted that the league has a drug-testing protocol. “The only thing you’ll find in my urine is maybe some ibuprofen,” Flournoy said.
When Blake promoted Flournoy to the position of player-coach in 2002 — “I saw very clearly that Fab had the attributes to be a coach,” Blake said — Flournoy thought it would be temporary. At the time, Flournoy was coming off an injury and was worried that a new coach would cut him from the team. But there was no way he would cut himself, so he took the job.
All these years later, Flournoy continues to juggle both roles with the help of Forrester, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the league and volunteers his services.
“I know everything about every other team because I’m a geek,” said Forrester, who works by day as a lawyer at his father’s firm.
Flournoy put Forrester on the bench in 2009. Forrester had been a longtime fan of the team who was not exactly shy about critiquing the Eagles, and their coach’s strategies, on the team’s online message board. But Flournoy could tell that Forrester was knowledgeable.
“Annoyingly,” Claire Forrester said.
Within two weeks of David Forrester’s joining the team in an official capacity, Flournoy was suspended a game for throwing a clipboard across the court — and there was Forrester, coaching the Eagles against the London Capital. Flournoy sat in the stands.
“We won,” Forrester said, “but it was crackers.”
Flournoy’s intensity has never wavered, and he seems to strive for a life of discipline that borders on monastic. He keeps his bedroom free of clutter, avoids social media and cares little, he said, for material possessions. (His medal from Prince William is buried in a box in his closet — and that is the one item, he said, that probably means the most to him.) And while Flournoy said he had been dating a woman from Newcastle for several years, he described their relationship as complicated.
“It’s constantly being worked on,” he said.
Basketball consumes his time and energy, and he tries to coax the same single-minded focus from his players. He sets an almost impossible standard. Earlier this month, the day after a loss to the Glasgow Rocks, Flournoy led a four-hour film session to review the first 9 minutes 32 seconds of the game.
“It could’ve been six hours,” Flournoy said.
There was more heartbreak to come. Against Leicester, Jaysean Paige, a former guard at West Virginia, was brilliant for Newcastle, scoring 32 points. But the Eagles gave up a late basket when they were slow to get back on defense, and Leicester escaped with a 79-77 victory. Newcastle’s record fell to 9-3.
Win or lose, the Eagles spend nearly a half-hour after every home game signing autographs and meeting with fans. After the Leicester loss, the process was cruel. But Flournoy put on his happy face as he posed for dozens of photographs, including one with a youth choir that had provided the halftime entertainment.
“Say thank you to the nice basketballers!” the music teacher instructed her students.
Once he returned to the locker room, Flournoy gave his team a 10-minute speech that was nothing short of volcanic. The veins in his neck seemed in danger of rupturing. He swore 54 times.
“This will not happen again!” he said.
Afterward, in a conversation with Forrester, Flournoy spoke in a whisper.
“Do you think they understood what I was telling them?” Flournoy asked.
“No,” Forrester said. “Well, maybe some of them.”
In a fitting cap to the evening, Forrester accidentally scratched another car as he was coming out of the parking lot.
Flournoy barely slept that night. At 2 a.m., he watched a recording of the game before picking up two of his players and driving them to the airport for their early-morning flights home for the holidays. The Eagles had two weeks before their next game, and he knew the loss would gnaw at him.
“Every loss is a scar, a reminder of what went wrong,” he said.
Flournoy does not know what the future will look like for him, except that he wants to keep playing — and, to a lesser extent, coaching, which was joyless for him after the Leicester debacle. But the Eagles are moving into a new 3,000-seat arena next season, and he has more championships to chase. Perhaps he cares too much, but the game, he said, has given him so much in return: an education, an extended family, a purpose.
So the man who has spent decades searching for his place in the world sees no reason to stop — not now, hopefully never.
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