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.