BIG-time professional basketball is coming to Southend for the first time later this year.

The British Basketball League (BBL) has confirmed that the Essex Pirates Basketball Club will compete in the Championship from the start of the 2009/10 season in September.

The new franchise will be based in Southend and play home games at the Southend Leisure and Tennis Centre at the Garon Park complex in Eastern Avenue.

The county has a long and established history of basketball development and the introduction of the Pirates franchise marks a return to top-flight action for Essex as the London & Essex Leopards used to play at Brentwood.

The Essex Pirates team is the top of a developmental pyramid created by GB coach Tim Lewis and long-time basketball operator Ian Mollard.

Alongside the new BBL franchise there is an AASE programme (Advanced Apprentice-ship in Sporting Excellence) run through South East Essex College, an England Basketball Division Four team and a non-profit community coaching company which is already delivering coaching into primary schools across the county.

“We have all worked exceptionally hard to create an environment in Essex and particularly Southend where development of talented young players is a priority for us going forward,” said Mollard.

Southend Council have been exceptional in their support and enthusiasm to bring top professional basketball to the county and recognise the potential of the sport with the London Olympics rapidly approaching.”

The franchise hopes that this will be expanded through the introduction of the BBL and EB’s successful Hoops 4 Health initiative.

Other exciting coaching and educational initiatives are set to launch in September.

BBL chairman Paul Blake said: “We are delighted to invite this new exciting franchise into the BBL.

“Essex has a strong tradition of basketball participation and support and the plans that this organisation have to further develop the basketball community in this territory are very much in line with the strategic direction of the BBL.

“This is first time the league has entertained 13 teams since the 2000/01 season.

“We are looking to make further franchise development progress in the next two to three years as a priority in identified territories as we look to expand to 16 teams.

“We wish the new franchise the best of luck for the forth coming season both on and off the court.”

The BBL will be announcing their competition format for next season in the coming days with the fixture schedule anticipated to be announced by the end of June.