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Dunning upping the ante to revive Brighton's fortunes

Mark Woods

It's not easy when you're at the bottom. No glory, no attention, no chance. All you can do is try to turn it around and hope it happens sooner rather than… well, if you're still around to see later. But for Brighton Bears coach Mark Dunning, optimism is the way forward as he looks to restore the south coast outfit to respectability.

Three months into the job and three wins, the second coming in Edinburgh last weekend and the third a stunning upset of London Towers. Yet the Bears still only trail nearest rivals London Leopards in the standings by a slender margin with the basement buddies each sitting on an identical number in the loss column. 

After succeeding Charles Bannerman in the Brighton beach-chair to become the latest in what has become almost a production line of employees in the job, he knew there was no easy route up. But Dunning is seeing signs of a potential revival.

"I think there's been some gradual improvements," says the boss, who cuts a diminutive figure along side his 7'1 giant Charles Claxton at courtside. 

"Some individuals have improved, The teams in terms of wins hasn't improved but we're improving slowly but surely.  The chemistry is one of the first things which improved which is good.

He adds: "Defence is my passion. I'm a defensive orientated coach. That's my main focus of attention,. But it does take time to instil in your players. Coming in mid-way through a season, it's even harder to do that." 

Dunning all but disappeared from the coaching limelight midway through the 1996-97 season when he parted company from the then Hemel Royals who were en route to a miserable campaign. For someone who had been involved almost continuously at the top level since joining Crystal Palace as an assistant coach back in 1981, rejection must have been hard to take.

Yet the Londoner has re-evaluated his approach to the game. Once regarded as a dictatorial coach who would think nothing of screaming his lungs out at the merest sign of player discord, he admits that time has mellowed the man. 

His personnel are adults. His teaching points deliberate rather than harsh. Now aged 43, Dunning feels it is a strategy which suits him better.

"It has come from age and experience. I'm bit smarter and all that has mellowed me out. Plus I really wasn't getting anywhere with what I was trying to do. A lot of my craziness was out of the frustration of wanting to win. Wanting the thirst for more knowledge. And trying to instil upon others that they should want the  same thing. 

"I guess it came over a bit weird for some people. It didn't really get me anywhere. The game went on its merry way and hasn't really improved. I've been involved at this level for 20 years and I haven’t seen it improve. So my focus is different now as a coach."

Dunning has gained criticism and praise in equal measure for handing his domestic personnel a regular share of court time within his rotation, inserting players like Danny Hildreth and James Brame into the starting line up at the expense of his imported guns.

And although their inexperience has led to some errors, Dunning maintains that it is a strategy which will pay long-term dividends at the club.

"It's deliberate," he states. "I wear my other hat as one of the people that is responsible for coach education in this country and one of the things we have to do is to produce players. If they don't get an opportunity to play, they can't do it. 

"I'm the type of guy who'll put his money where his mouth is and I'll play my young English kids off the bench."

And although the Brighton stars like Claxton and Lormont Sharp have looked visibly frustrated at their constant to and fro-ing between court and bench, their commander in chief does not sense that there is discord within his ranks.

"Basketball's the ultimate team game. I've used different starting fives and I'm trying to do different things. Players know they have to accept role sometimes. The ultimate is to contribute to the team in terms of performances to try and win. So  individual players have to try and fit into that.  If they don’t want to play a team sport, they should run track or play tennis."

With one-third of the campaign remaining, it was take a minor miracle for the Bears to make the post-season in April. But Dunning urges the club support to believe - in him and his players.

"We very much feel believe and hope we can still make that fourth play- off spot in our conference. That was always the aim at the outset of the season. It's going to be really tough but there's a lot of games left to play. The schedule isn't easy but we'll see what happens."

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