Home » Meet Fabulous Flournoy: Sixers assistant, Member of the Order of the British Empire, and former player coach

Meet Fabulous Flournoy: Sixers assistant, Member of the Order of the British Empire, and former player coach

Twenty-five years after he left the housing projects of the Bronx to chase his teenage hoop dreams at a Texas junior college, Fab Flournoy stood amid the grandeur of Buckingham Palace and smiled as Prince William pinned a medal to his chest honoring him as a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

The year after that, the current Sixers assistant coach made the latest radical change of his life.

It began with a phone call in the summer of 2019, Toronto to Newcastle, England. On the line was an old friend of Flournoy’s who had just won an NBA title.

To most of the rest of the world, Nick Nurse was the bespectacled, piano-playing, hipster-chic rookie head coach who had led the Raptors to their first-ever championship. To Flournoy, Nurse was the coach who had saved him from life as a post-graduate security guard at Baby Gap, offering him his first pro contract via cold call in the summer of 1996.

They spent two seasons together with the Birmingham Bullets of the British Basketball League, then followed each other’s careers from a distance. Flournoy would go on to become one of that league’s most popular players, Nurse its most legendary coach.

Now, two decades after they first teamed up, Nurse was calling with another job offer. Come join me in Toronto as an assistant coach.

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There was only one potential hang-up.

It wasn’t necessarily the career that Flournoy had built with the Newcastle Eagles, where he had transitioned into coaching in 2003. Four years shy of his 50th birthday, he had accomplished everything he could have accomplished: Six league championships, 15 consecutive top-three finishes, a long list of community-service projects. Only six years younger than Nurse, Flournoy knew that a jump to an NBA bench was the best move for his coaching career.

“He’s a legend over there,” Nurse said. “He really embodied the guy that comes over and becomes really entrenched in the community, becomes a bit of an icon, not only for the playing part but for all that he put back into it.”

Therein lay the problem.

In order to take the coaching job with the Raptors, Flournoy would have to retire. . .as a player.

And he was only 46.

“We were all thinking he’d retire at 31 or 32,” said Paul Blake, the managing director of the Newcastle Eagles, who elevated Flournoy to player-coach back in 2002.

The most interesting person on the Sixers bench is the 50-year-old dude who spends pregame and practice sessions in shorts and a T-shirt, rebounding and playing defense against guys like Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.

It’s a remarkable thing to watch, until you learn that Flournoy was playing 20 minutes a night as an international pro less than five years ago.

It’s also one of the less remarkable things about Fab Flournoy, a man with a life that befits his name.

“Where I come from, you learn not to take anything for granted,” Flournoy said recently. “Not to be too dark or anything, but, statistically, the numbers weren’t too good growing up in the South Bronx. Basketball was a way out.

“In my situation, there was one way out. To put it quite simply, that’s the way I’m going. No other thought than that. Step by step. And then one thing led me to another, to another, to another.”

The best way to appreciate it is to hear Flournoy tell it, because he appreciates it more than anyone. By the time he was 23, he had watched his mother leave his abusive father, moved more times than he could count, and shared a bed with three siblings, two at the foot and two at the head.

He discovered basketball late, then set his mind to making it his way out. He grinded his way to schoolboy stardom while battling an undiagnosed case of dyslexia. When his grades kept him from qualifying for a four-year scholarship, he left New York for Carthage, Texas, where he became a juco star at Panola College and earned his way to McNeese State, in Lake Charles, La.

He buried his brother, Jimmy, killed in a shooting in South Carolina. He struggled with thoughts of retribution, of following a darker path.

When Flournoy ended up back in the Bronx after graduating from McNeese State in 1996, he couldn’t help but think that life had led him in a circle that he would not escape. Then came a phone call from a 29-year-old coach from Iowa whom he had met on an all-star barnstorming tour.

Come to the United Kingdom, Nurse said. We’ll pay you $200 per week.

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“He gave me an opportunity and I held on with two hands for dear life,” Flournoy said.

Flournoy quickly established himself as one of the BBL’s most lasting stars. An undersized but athletic power forward, he could rebound like hell and guard one through five. He remained in Birmingham for a couple of seasons after Nurse left for London.

Eventually, Flournoy landed in Newcastle. When the Eagles found themselves short on cash and without a coach in 2002, Flournoy got that job, too.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to be a coach,’” recalled Blake, who purchased the team in 1999 at age 28. “He said, ‘I want to be a player, and I can coach.’”

He did both for the next 16 years, leaving the BBL as its all-time leader in assists, steals, and blocked shots, as well as its most decorated coach.

In the process, he built a life.

Among Flournoy’s earliest supporters in Newcastle was Dave Forrester, a lawyer and college friend of Blake’s who was a season-ticket holder with an analytical bent. Forrester offered to help Flournoy with the recruitment of players, a never-ending struggle in a league perceived as a competitive (and financial) backwater.

Within five years, Forrester was on Flournoy’s bench with Flournoy living in Forrester’s house. Within 10, Forrester was swearing Flournoy in as a British citizen and Flournoy was godfather to Forrester’s kids.

The climax came at Buckingham Palace, on New Year’s Eve of 2017. After spending two decades as one of England’s foremost basketball pioneers, Flournoy accepted an invitation to one of the royal family’s investiture ceremonies.

There, in front of Prince William and future King Charles, Flournoy became a Member of the Order of the British Empire, a prestigious honor that recognizes work in the arts and in the community.

“He was a very big fish in a pretty small pond here,” Forrester said. “He took the whole thing on. He’s playing, he’s coaching, he’s giving speeches, visiting schools, chatting up sponsors. He found a home. That’s the best way to put it.”

Flournoy has a new home now. A new career arc. A new journey that is unfolding. After four seasons with the Raptors, Flournoy was one of a handful of assistants Nurse brought with him to the Sixers.

He is one of the best basketball players in his adoptive country’s history, and one of its most decorated citizens. He is also loving life as a coach first, and a player never.

“I love playing,” Flournoy said, “I absolutely love playing. But more, to me, I love working for Coach Nurse. I love being around the game. I love basketball, in every way, shape, and form. This was a natural step in the journey for me. And I’m loving every second of it.”