When David Aliu takes to the floor for Cheshire Phoenix this season in the British Basketball League (BBL), he will be embarking on another chapter of a long career path in a sport he only took up as a 14-year-old.
Liverpool-born Aliu, now 34, is entering his 11th year as a professional basketball player, no mean feat in a sport that is notoriously difficult to maintain longevity unless you break into the NBA. Players are forced to travel the world over, often in return for little financial gain, in order to keep their professional dream alive.
Despite taking up the sport at the late age of 14, Aliu has carved out a fine professional career for himself. A strict fitness regime and a will to win has served him well during a professional career that has also taken in spells in Switzerland, Iceland and Spain, as well as eight seasons in the top tier of British basketball.
His journey is a fascinating one. He took up basketball in a bid to stave off the boredom of the football season having gone into hibernation and, when the football season was in full swing, to have a go-to indoor sport when the gloomy North West weather put paid to kickabouts outside in the rain. In a city where football reigns supreme, where you are either a red or a blue (Aliu is a red, by the way), a teenage Aliu was taking the first steps towards an unlikely career path.
It turned out that he was pretty handy with a basketball. Such was his natural flair for the sport and sheer physical presence, he became involved with his local club, Toxteth Tigers, under the tutelage of a coach who he claims he owes it all to, Henry Mooney. Mooney was the head coach of the Tigers and played a pivotal role in Aliu leaving behind his Merseyside home and starting a new life in America, where he would eventually go to high school in Virginia before playing his college hoops in Kentucky.
LOOK: David Aliu's Cheshire Phoenix career so far
Tracy McGrady, Lamar Odom and making the move to the US
Aliu had already begun to impress this side of the pond. His performances for Toxteth had led him to represent England at junior level. But it was a trip organised through Mooney to Las Vegas that would forever alter the course of Aliu's life.
Mooney had contacts in the States and those said contacts were to prove fruitful. He took a team of young 15 and 16 year old players from Toxteth to play in Nevada at a showcase, where a whole host of future NBA superstars were aiming to impress. Showcases for high school players are big business. Scouts are all aiming to find the next LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. They are trying to find out who could be a first round pick and who will be a college bust. If a player creates a buzz in high school you can be pretty sure that he is in every scouts little black book, from Washington state to Washington DC. But one player who probably wasn't on the radar was Aliu. But that didn't stop him from catching the eye of several scouts, marking the start of his basketball odyssey.
"Henry Mooney basically moulded me into the player I am today," said Aliu. "He gave me the opportunity to play at a young age.
"The likes of Tracy McGrady were there, Lamar Odom and people like that. Guys who have played in the NBA for years. I think I was 15 or 16 and I was noticed by some high schools and universities out there. I think there was a university called UNLV and they recruited me to go to a high school in Las Vegas. That's basically how it came about for me to go to the States. But because of the way it unfolded for me in terms of my transcripts and stuff, all my education in the UK, it came through late in the States so I couldn't go to the high school in Vegas."
Virginia to Kentucky
But that wasn't to be the end of it for Aliu. Such was the clamour for his services across the pond, he transferred to Notre Dame Academy, a private high school in Middleburg, Virginia, with an enviable basketball program which had national acclaim.
"I transferred to a private high school on the east coast (Notre Dame Academy) where you can play straight away. It worked out better for me as we were the best high school team in the country at the time along with Oak Hill (Virginia). I played there for two years and got a scholarship to Morehead State University in Kentucky," said Aliu, who will captain his Cheshire Phoenix side in the BBL once again this season.
"I claim I was lucky but it was all down to the coach I was playing for at Toxteth (Mooney) as he had friends and links in the States and was able to get a team of lads from Toxteth to play at a tournament in Las Vegas with some of the best players that have ever played basketball. The players in that tournament, I can name them all. Most of them went on to play in the NBA. For me to be able to do that was down to Henry Mooney."
Aliu's time at Morehead State was a successful one. He played under former Phoenix Suns, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers player Kyle Macy during his time at the NCAA Division One school between 2000 and 2004, averaging 50% from the field and 78% from the charity stripe as an Eagle.
For many talented basketball players at college level the highs of playing in front of thousands of fans during those years is as good as it gets. Unless the next step is to be playing at a sold out Staples Centre or at Madison Square Garden, the reality after the curtain comes down on college hoops is one of half-empty gyms in some far-flung part of the world - and that is if you're lucky enough to carve out a professional career.
WATCH: David Aliu in BBL action for Manchester Giants
"College sport its the biggest sport, period," said Aliu. "College sport at NCAA Division One is bigger than any level of professional basketball anywhere in the world. You are playing against the best players in the world, from the world over. Whenever you go and play somewhere else, everywhere seems a little bit easier.
"But then it flips around the other way. Just because you played for a big college doesn't mean your going to go on and have a great career as a professional. Some of the best players that I've ever seen have come from Division Three schools. A lot of people get caught up in the whole 'where did he play in college and how did he do numbers wise?'. All that to me doesn't mean anything. All that matters to me is the player and whether they can be a piece in a puzzle. There are two ends to the spectrum."
Aliu was a mainstay of a Cheshire team that endured a rollercoaster of a season in the BBL last time out. Under the guidance of American coach John Coffino, the Nix reached the semi-final of the BBL Play-Offs, narrowly missing out on a spot at the showpiece final at London's O2 Arena by one shot after a highly-charged clash with beaten finalists London Lions in what was the final game at the club's home for 22 years, the Northgate Arena, before they moved to their new 1,400 seater arena in Ellesmere Port.
The times they are a-changin' in the BBL
Aliu has a BBL Championship, BBL Trophy and BBL Play-Off title to his name and his career in British basketball has taken in spells with the Scottish Rocks (as they were known before becoming Glasgow), Leicester Riders, Manchester Giants, Cheshire and the now-defunct Mersey Tigers.
A league that often draws much criticism for its perceived lack of in-depth quality and inability to tap in to what seems like a ripe market given the amount of interest British sports fans have in watching the NBA on their TV sets, the BBL seems to be on an upward trajectory of late, attracting more fans and players of a higher quality to the league. And having seen the league at first hand over the past decade, Aliu believes that things could be looking up for domestic basketball in the UK.
He said: "To be honest, it changes each year and you adapt to it as it comes. I'm sure people can say that it was more competitive five years ago or something like that, but it changes every year. Every year, though, the teams that are getting put out there are more competitive. I've seen some of the signings that teams have got this year.
"In terms of what I've seen over the last 10 years or so, last season was the most competitive I have ever seen the BBL. In terms of top to bottom, anybody could beat anybody. The top few spots were split by a game and the play-offs were split by a game so it was really tight. In that aspect it is the most aspect I have seen it. It was on a more even keel."
What next for the Phoenix?
And what of Cheshire's chances this season? After the expectation of success last season under the stewardship of New Yorker Coffino, a former NBA D-League coach and assistant coach at NCAA Division One schools Iona, Niagara University and St. Peter's College who was able to bring in talent such as former high school phenom Taylor King, an ex-Duke recruit and McDonalds All American, and former NBA first-round pick Julius Hodge, who played in the NBA for both the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks, the expectations this season have been tempered somewhat.
A reduced budget has seen the club, now under the charge of head coach John Lavery, change their tact in terms of recruitment, looking to a younger roster. But, ever the competitor, Aliu fully intends he and his team-mates to be mixing it with the best of them when the season tips off next month.
"For me, it doesn't matter where I'm playing or who I'm playing with, the ultimate goal is to win," said the 6ft 6ins forward. "That is the competitive nature in me. There would be no point me playing the sport otherwise. Every team I play with I always feel we have got a chance to win because that is my mentality and I try and pass that on to people.
"From the team that we have got coming in, by the looks of things, it looks like we have a really young and youthful team coming in. That's what we need. There youth and energy is what we need to push through the tough games. I can't wait for them all to get in and meet them, get on the same page and start putting these plans in action."