Paton sounds Siren for Polonia success

Mark Woods

Not many people who enjoy sport realise their fantasy by making a career out of it. It is the one thing that separates the mere fan from the professional, a dream unfulfilled for the vast majority in the stands. One British basketball player is living her own dream, watched by nine million viewers on a regular basis, playing some tough defence and displaying immensely athletic skills in the midst of fierce competition. Ali Paton's new found celebrity status in the sport of hoops is however not entirely attributable to undoubted talents on a parquet, but more to her regular role as Siren on ITV's Gladiators.

Paton has represented Scotland 12 times at international level since 1992, an ideal outlet for a self confessed fitness junkie. Playing for Polonia Phoenix and before that Team Caledonia, the striking 1.80m blonde has enjoyed the heights of Scottish basketball without reaping the rewards afforded to the best of the best in competing disciplines. With her belated move into the world of over sized cotton buds and climbing frames, her celebrity is establishing itself, and both Polonia and Scotland have benefited from the result. With the Edinburgh club only training once per week, the additional training is a welcome plus as well as the psychological spin offs. "Every jump ball I think to myself, I'm going to win this. It's positive thinking because when I'm on the court, I'm thinking I'm the fittest person out here."

The rigours of making it as Gladiator are huge, and with filming taking place only in July and August, Paton keeps up the effort all year round. "The sort of training I'm doing now is helping my basketball and I wish I'd known this five years ago or I would have been doing it then. I'm telling all the other girls in the team and some of them are doing it as well."

In the intimate confines of Scottish basketball, being a celebrity in her field of choice makes Paton a recognisable figure, and while fellow players have not changed their attitudes towards her, she admits that additional pressure has been heaped on her shoulders. "People are now sitting watching and are thinking she's a Gladiator. People do look at you differently. People expect more from me and I do have that in the back of my mind before games." Proof if any were needed of this is a ritual mobbing of the Polonia bench before, after, and even during games by young fans, eager for the mark of Siren on their shirts, basketballs or even bare skin in some cases.

With a real battle on its hands to compete with the established sports in Scotland, basketball in the region is languishing behind even the popularity achieved further south. Paton has offered herself as a talisman. "The minute I got in, I said to people use me to promote basketball. I don't know if it's a Scottish thing, but people think they're taking advantage of me which hasn't really happened. I don't on the other hand want people to put me in something to do with basketball, just because I'm a Gladiator, so I haven't pushed it."

Polonia coach Stuart Harris is a fan of his star player, who has expertly complemented fellow Scottish internationals Jane Ward and Leigh Mackenzie in the double chasing team this season. "She's getting stronger all the time," comments Harris. "Ali's a good player close to the basket and very tough on the boards." The two time league winning playcaller adds one reservation nonetheless. "To be fair, she came back a bit off form after doing panto, which I'm sure she'd acknowledge herself. But she's worked her way back since then after missing a few games."

Paton is quick to return the complimentary analysis. "Stuart is a great coach. I really enjoy playing for him because it is fun to train and we have great team spirit at Polonia. We're lucky that we have people who are interested and can make the arrangements. It's great that we have that kind of level where people keep pushing us."

With Polonia's dominance of Scottish basketball over a number of seasons, the Edinburgh side have reached a pinnacle which has no challenge locally, with the autumn's BIBF Championships a rare outing onto a bigger stage. Paton recognises the downside of this lofty perch. "The only way up from the position we are in would be to play in the English league, but that would mean players giving up their whole weekend to go and play down south."

How does her basketball ability translate into Siren's Saturday evening show under the television lights in Birmingham ? "Being a basketball player, as a team sport, it helps me compete in most of the Gladiator's games. John Anderson, (Gladiator's referee and co-ordinator) will tell me to play in a particular game because I'm used to positional sports, whereas most of the others are athletes or gymnasts, which is an individual thing. It definitely helps me in some of the games."

Two university degrees are proof that Paton is more than just a pretty face. With further series of Gladiators in prospect, health promotion campaigns, seasons in pantomine and offers of television presenting flooding in, a return to a career in quantity surveying is not an option. "All I ever wanted to do was my job and then go and work out. The company I was working for used to send me to London and all I could think of was the location of the nearest gym, which was ridiculous. The Gladiator thing was a new angle, and I grabbed it like a shot. What I'm now doing is so varied which is great."

Athlete, television personality, basketball player, Gladiator and actress. A multitude of skills. So what occupation would Siren list on her passport? "Unemployed surveyor," jokes Paton. Proof that this is one small forward with a deservedly big future.

Britball Features