Category: Australian Sports

The second growth period for Basketball in Australia

As an 8 year old, I started following this guy called ‘Magic’ Johnson. It was 1990, and I had just moved to a small country town in NSW. It was a town that had produced a few professional Rugby League players, but it’s fair to say Basketball wan’t really ‘on the radar’ at the time.

This was a time before the internet and pay TV. All the news I got about Magic and the NBA was found in the Courier Mails’ sports section – Not the articles, but the results pages, if I was lucky. It was right next to some division 6 Brisbane junior soccer league, and the local croquet results.

My parents ran a Bakery, which had a Newsagents a couple of doors down. The owner of the Newsagents started to stock a publication called “Pro Basketball Today”. It was a newspaper with NBA and NBL news only, and came out weekly.

After a while, my parents started buying it for me. I wasn’t too sure why, but I later found out it was because the Newsagent came and told them that I can’t sit in their store, reading PBT every day, while never buying it.

I finally had a weekly resource to follow Basketball! But then, a few other things started to happen…

I had friends who liked Basketball too. Our town built a brand new Indoor Sports Stadium, that was predominantly a Basketball court. Channel 10 (NRTV) started televising the NBL, and had three Basketball magazine shows, one with Steve Carfino and Bill Woods, the others American shows – NBA Inside Stuff, hosted by Ahmad Rashad, followed by NBA Action, hosted by Jim Fagan. It came with the coveted ‘top 10 plays of the week’.

In 1991 my family moved to a property just out of town. That year I got my first Basketball hoop at home, and I consequently spent the best part of every afternoon out there, shooting hoops, commentating the whole time, pretending I was the Lakers, beating the Bulls.

The Bulls. While basketball was steadily building in popularity, the Chicago Bulls of the late 80’s, early 90’s era were the reason for the first real boom in popularity for Basketball in Australia. Suddenly, no kids sleepover was the same without hiring a copy of ‘Michael Jordan’s Playground’ from the local video shop. This ‘movie’ instilled that belief in all aspiring kids that they could do anything if they believed in their dreams and worked hard.

Also in 1991, Magic Johnson told everyone he had HIV, and suddenly the landscape changed. again. I copped it from all the footy boys for liking  ‘a fag’, because back then, Aids or HIV meant you were gay according to the masses. And being gay was not at all cool back then.

However, outside of the School yard, what Magic did was another catalyst for growth of the sport in Australia. Suddenly there was an NBA story on the news every night. Aslo, because it was 1991, most houses only had 1 TV, which means everyone saw those stories. Any publicity is good publicity, right?

The game grew so much more. We had one of the worlds most recognisable figures on TV because he had HIV, we had the worlds best ever Basketball player in his prime, we had Australian stars in Shane Heal and Andrew Gaze and, hang on, is that an Aussie in the NBA? That’s right, Luc Longley joins the Minnesota Timberwolves.

From that moment, Basketball was enjoying its first golden era in Australia. Never before or since has the NBL been as popular as it was, and we had representation in the NBA. A couple of years on, and Luc Longley becomes Michael Jordans teammate, and consequently the first Australian to win an NBA Championship ring.

Shaquille O’Neal single handedly makes the Orlando Magic a relevant team all over the world, and suddenly your level of ‘coolness’ is solely dependant on whether your shoes were Jordans, Shaqs, or Penny’s. But the reality is, you’re likely to be in the cheap rip-off Lynx’s from the local shoe store.

One of the most memorable moments in Olympic history happened in 1996, when Shane Heal took it to the USA Dream Team, and stood up to Charles Barkley. While Australia lost the game, no one remembers the score, but everyone remembers Shane Heal. Consequently, Heal, Gaze, Bradtke and McKinnon all end up in the NBA.

Also in 1996, I was lucky enough to go to my first ever NBA game. LA Lakers v Portland at the Great Western Forum. It was the first year that Shaquille O’Neal was a Laker, and it was also Kobe Bryant’s rookie season. After watching Shaq block Kenny Anderson in double overtime to win the game, I was a basketball fan for life.

I can’t quite understand why, but all over Australia, Basketball slowly became less relevant. Over the next 15 years, it would struggle. In that time, the NBL folded, came back. The national comp had no team in Sydney or Brisbane for a period as well.

We had more NBA representation, with Andrew Bogut securing the number 1 draft pick in 2005, and others coming through, but still, basketball remained fairly flat in Australia.

Suddenly, with super fast internet, pay TV almost everywhere, and Aussies in the NBA, no one really cared.

In my opinion, what changed the landscape in Australia was the 2014-15 NBA Finals Series. You had this new superstar, Steph Curry, doing things that no other player has ever done before. Shooting 3’s from literally anywhere on the court, and nailing them, time after time. He, and his mate Klay, who was also a lights out shooter, were partnered by Andrew Bogut, our Aussie draft pick come good, playing against the current ‘worlds best’ baller in LeBron James, and another aussie, Matthew Dellavedova. As luck would have it, Cleveland would have some injury concerns, so Dellavedova plays a much larger role in the finals than even he could have expected, marking the MVP, Steph Curry.

Australia just simply couldn’t ignore this. While the Warriors would go on to win in 6, and Bogut (while playing limited minutes) won his first championship, much like Heal all those years before, what people remember is Matthew Dellavedova shutting down Steph Curry, time and time again. He worked so hard he ended up in hospital after one game. It is very rare that your teams best player (Curry) doesn’t win the finals MVP when your team wins the Championship, but because of Dellavedova, Curry had to watch his teammate, Andre Iguodala lift that trophy.

The following year, Delly wins against the Warriors with Cleveland, coming back from 3-1 down.

Considering we had Baynes and Mills in San Antonio’s 2013-14 championship teams, we now had 3 years in a row where aussies had won Championships in the NBA.

I am confident that basketball will continue to grow in Australia, and why shouldn’t it? We have more Aussies in the NBA than ever before, we have the best rookie in the league, who is being touted for greatness, we have a team that could push Team USA in 2 years at the Olympics, and the NBL is strong again – in fact, live NBL is a lot of fun if you haven’t been.

With 20 years in between golden era’s, is that because all those who were into Basketball 20 years ago now have kids? Is it because of the popularity of Hip Hop? Is it because of the quality of the games in both the NBA and NBL?

Whatever the reason for it’s return to popularity, I just love that the game I love is popular enough to allow me to play in a local comp in my small country town again.

Australia, why don’t we Tailgate?

If ever there was something that seemed so Australian, it’s tailgating. And we don’t do it!

What’s tailgating, you ask. Well it is not driving too close to the car in front of you, if that’s what you are thinking.

On a trip to the US in 2016, I made my way to multiple events that had Tailgates set up. I stumbled across the first one by accident. I had a ticket to the Stanford Cardinal College Football game, with the kickoff at 12:30pm. I also needed to meet with their marketing manager, who asked to meet at 6:30am, as game days, in her words, are ‘crazy long and alcoholic’.

I turned up to the carpark at about 6:15am, to find a large amount of spaces already taken. They weren’t like Australian sporting event carparks, where marshals force you to park so close to the next car that you need to exit via the window, no – these marshals were giving them a ‘maximum setup space’, and people were setting up BBQ’s, fridges, esky’s, TV’s, ballgames and deck chairs.

At the completion of my meeting, I was taken to a Craft Beer and Brekky event within the Tailgate. That’s right, as many craft beers as I wanted at 7:30am, to go with my stripped bacon, eggs, waffles and deep fried chicken.

But I didn’t stay too long, as there was so much more going on around the carpark. I just walked around, meeting amazing people, and being invited into their setups. Most setups had about 7-10 people present, but the community feel was alive and well, with plenty of people coming and going in and out of everyone’s setups. There were games of sack throwing, some weird game that could be best described as throwing weighted string at an indoor clothesline, and loads more. Some setups even had prizes for those who won their game. It was quite bizarre.

Some were families, some were mates, alumni, work colleagues, neighbours, but all were in high spirits, and extremely friendly.

By 10am, the place was packed. but suddenly a rush of people headed toward another area on the campus. They lined the walkway from the tailgate to the stadium as the players arrived. The marching band led them in, and a crowd of thousands cheered them into the arena.

Once the team had entered, and the crowd headed back to the carpark, I noticed a whole other area, another carpark, that had another tailgate setup, but this one was huge. Not only did they have the individual setups, they had companies giving away free stuff, food vans as far as you could see, merchandise stores, both licensed and not, and so much more. In the middle of all of it, there were some portable grandstands. I went in to see what was going on, and the College were having a Wrestling competition between their team and the team from Oregon, who they were playing in the football. Just awesome.

I made my way into the stadium in time for kickoff, but the stadium looked pretty empty. Confused, I asked someone nearby where everyone was. They said that most people don’t leave the tailgate until at least the end of the 1st quarter, some not til the second half, and depending on the how the tailgate, and the game, is going, some not at all!

A couple of days later, I went to Levi’s Stadium to watch the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL. Again, on arrival, the carpark was full with mindblowing setups. But they also offered a paid tailgate, called the Red Zone Rally. It cost $80, and included free food and drink, including all alcohol. They also had plenty of activities setup, like kicking through the goals, throwing a touchdown pass, meeting the cheerleaders, mascots etc. and even a ride on a rollercoaster. The food hall had hundreds of TV screens up with all the other NFL games being played live across the country.

Finally, I went to the Rose Bowl to watch UCLA football, and again, it was an all day affair. I came home with that much free fan gear, many would assume I attended UCLA as a student.

Now I reflect on the last live football game I went to in Australia, and I remember remarking on how good it was that they had a paid for jumping castle outside the stadium for our kids. That was the pre-match entertainment. Meanwhile the NRL scratch their heads on why the stadiums aren’t selling out.

With one exception, I have never seen pre-game, mid-game or post-game entertainment that is memorable in Australia. I have been to Grand Finals, State of Origins, AFL, NRL, Big Bash, Rugby World Cups, A-League, Socceroo World Cup Qualifiers – nothing. Often the best entertainment you get is the fans, which is great, but what are the venues and the sports administrators doing?

That exception? In December I went to my first NBL game. It was the best sports event I have ever been to in Australia. The game was good, but you were entertained from 60 minutes prior to tip off, right through til 20 minutes after the final whistle. I imagine not many people would think that the NBL is the winner, but as far as atmosphere and entertainment, it is streaks ahead in this country.

Simply relying on the game itself is not good enough. The tailgate experience is an all day affair that has the game as the cherry on top. In order to be at the tailgate you needed a ticket to the game, but if a ticket to the game means a whole day of entertainment, suddenly the cost of that ticket doesn’t seem that high.

Surely there are venues that could provide this type of experience in Australia. Yes you need space around the arena, which some don’t have, but a lot do. Whether they are carparks, training fields, Schools, anything that could bring this sort of atmosphere to Australian sport, and I guarantee, the tickets will sell better, the grounds will be fuller, and the fanbases will grow.

It is worth noting that there are some Colleges in the USA (that’s right, Colleges, not NFL teams) that have sold out their arenas for every game over consecutive YEARS! Nebraska have an 80,000 seat stadium, that has been sold out every game since 1954. They have the longest streak, but certainly not the only streak.

What do you think? Can this ever happen in Australia, if not, why not? Comment below.