THEY can count a Spanish dentist among their ranks, and a triple crown now stands in the sights of Rossendale Raptors.

Braced for a key weekend in their season, the basketball team continue their promotion challenge at Sheffield Sabres tonight before travelling to Oxford Brookes University in the semi finals of the National Shield tomorrow.

Aitor Estrada adds a continental flavour to the Raptors side, who play their home matches at Haslingden Sports Centre.

Estrada commutes from his dental practice in Lytham for training twice a week.

“It’s 45 minutes driving but it’s worth it,” he says.

“The traffic? It’s fine. I used to live in Madrid!”

East Lancashire may be a departure from the hustle and bustle of the Spanish capital, but Estrada has enjoyed life in England since moving 10 years ago and relishes the chance to be a part of a winning team.

“I came here because of my girlfriend,” he said. “I met her in Spain, she was English and then she came to the UK.

“I had some opportunities here with work so I took my suitcase and came here!

“Things have been really good here and I enjoy playing for this team. I’ve been with the team for the last three years.

“Basketball is quite a big part of my life. It’s quite big in Spain, basically the same clubs they have in football also all have a basketball team.

“It’s the second sport in Spain, the national team is really good.

“If any basketball player in Spain goes out people know them and ask for autographs.

“I started playing when I was six. When I started university when I was 18 I stopped playing and became a dentist.

“But when I came to the UK I wanted to play some sport and start playing basketball again, when I was 27.

“I’ve been playing since then, I’m 35 now. I’m already too old to be playing, but I think I can manage all right!”

Estrada has recently been joined at the Raptors by another overseas player – the Italian Papis Samb, who has previously played in Belgium and Switzerland.

Steven Gayle is arguably Raptors’ star player, after spells with Manchester Giants, Worthing Thunder, Chester Jets and Manchester Magic. The 33-year-old is hoping to inspire a club who have ambitions to become a professional team within five years.

They currently sit second in National League Division Three North and are confident of claiming one of the two promotion spots, with nine games to go.

The National Shield and the play-offs are their other two targets.

“We’re going to do that, we’re going to get the cup, the league and the play-offs,” said Gayle.

“Hopefully now we won’t lose another game this season.

“I push the guys, if we want to be winners we’ve got to keep bettering our performances.

“I’m a teacher, I’m not just a player, I don’t come here and just look after myself, I look after everybody and put myself last.”

Gayle’s arrival in the sport was almost by accident. He did not even watch the NBA until his career started for real.

“I used to be a football player but I didn’t like the cold!” he laughs. “I was sick of standing on the right wing, freezing.

“So I picked up basketball at 11, we did it in PE, it was an indoor sport, it was warm.

“I was rubbish at first but I loved it and it turned my life around.

“I told my mum that I didn’t want to play football any more because I was sick of not being able to do my button on my trousers after playing, I was so cold!

“I play badminton as well, and pool and table tennis. Anything indoors is where you’ll find me!”

Gayle, who had a spell playing in Florida before his move to Raptors, counts among his career highlights the chance to train with Steve Nash – LA Lakers star and two-time NBA MVP – at Manchester Giants.

He hopes that basketball can grow again in the UK, after a previous impact in the 90s.

“It was a dream when I was 18,” he said.

“You got to practise in great facilities, eat in great restaurants, get all this free stuff. For a young kid it was unbelievable. It was a high level of basketball whereas now it’s not the same.

“In those days it was on Channel 4 and Sky, and as a kid you saw adverts.

“It’s not seen now so it’s hard to say, ‘We play at this place, come and have a look.

“Once people are there they get caught up in it, but it’s getting them there.”

Raptors have played in front of crowds of up to 350 but are considering moving to a bigger venue if they are to progress.

Estrada said: “If you see the games in Spain, you play against another city so the people of the city go and support the team.

“That is a little bit missing here but we have support from the guys from around the area, the young guys.

“We need to try to build that up a little bit more.”

Josh Houghton signed for Raptors last week from Stockport Falcons after speaking to coach Ken Masser.

“I sat down with Ken and he told me what the club’s objectives were and where they want to be in a few years’ time, and I thought I’d love to be a part of it,” said Houghton, who previously played for Manchester Magic and also had a brief spell in Gran Canaria.

“This is a very big weekend for the club.”