A special thank you to James Oakley, who helped make this article possible
Throughout my time watching professional sport in this country, one question in particular has always irked me beyond all belief; why is it that New Zealand can continually produce 15 world class rugby players yet not do the same in other sports?
As a nation we seem to have an endless conveyor belt of world class rugby players, with each new player arriving at the perfect time to replace the one before them.
When it comes to other sports however, the same standard is rarely seen.
We’ve produced some great athletes over the years sure, but never on the same level as rugby. We’ve had some world class cricketers, but never a whole eleven. We’ve produced some top-class footballers, but again never a whole side. We’ve had some great individual athletes, but never consistently enough to challenge the other big nations.
The most frustrating thought though revolves around basketball.
Because only five players take the court at a time, conceivably, it should be easier to field a team that can compete, but again, it’s something that we haven’t seen since the Tall Blacks shock performance at the 2002 FIBA World Cup, finishing fourth ahead of the likes of Spain and the USA.
However, that could quickly be changing.
I’ll be honest when I say that I don’t claim to know as much about basketball as I do about football, cricket or rugby, but recently basketball has found itself in the news for all the right reasons, and we could see a cultural shift because of it.
Thanks to broadcast deals, social media and other various formats that now seem to prop up professional sport, American sport and basketball in particular are now more accessible to New Zealand audiences than ever.
With the stop-start highlights based nature of American sport, audiences can access top quality content whenever they want, either via televised, streamed or on-demand coverage. Because of this, the traditional diet of rugby, league or cricket coverage that a normal Kiwi youngster is exposed to can now also be supplemented, if not overtaken by basketball.
So, with kids in particular able to grow up with an alternative to just watching rugby, it’s becoming more likely that we’ll start to see this reflected with top young sportsmen and women seeing basketball as a viable career option ahead of anything else.
Of course, there is another reason why kids want to watch and play basketball right now, with that being none other than our very own Steven Adams.
After being drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013, Adams became only the third Kiwi after Sean Marks and Kirk Penney to play in the NBA. What’s more impressive was that Adams became the first Kiwi drafted in the first round, not to mention playing at a college not known for producing NBA stars.
Since then, Adams has had a remarkable rise playing in the toughest and most popular league in the world and is now considered one of the best players at OKC.
Aside from obvious ability on the court, his attitude and how he conducts himself away from the game has made the sporting world take note of the Kiwi centre. Hopefully this will mean that young players no longer have to face an unfair stigma that being from New Zealand brings with it whether or not you can make it as a professional at the highest level.
Steven Adams is paving the way for the next generation of fans, not restricted to Kiwis in the least, to aspire to being. Having come from a background of humility and hard work, he’s showing that success in the NBA is attainable for Kiwis if they work hard enough.
And if Adams wasn’t enough, there are no fewer than 17 Kiwi prospects plying their trade in the American college system. While they certainly won’t all make it, it’s conceivable that Steven Adams will be squaring off against one of his countrymen at some point in the near future.
Closer to home, basketball has become more accessible in a different way from just watching on TV, with the Breakers allowing fans to go and watch good quality competition live and in person.
Founded in 2003, the Breakers initially struggled to compete as a team both on and off the court. Four titles and one runners-up place later, the Breakers have proven to be the most successful, as well as credible, of any New Zealand team playing in an Australian competition, with other codes yet to taste any true success.
Aside from all the on court success, the Breakers have shown that they are one of if not the best run sporting organisation in the country, and are easily the star sporting attraction in a city also home to the Warriors and the Blues. Not only that, but they have become a professional outlet for home-grown players, allowing them to establish an environment in which basketball can compete with other sports teams operating in the same city.
The Breakers are giving Kiwi fans a team that they can be proud of supporting, with the on court results verifying that basketball is well and truly on the rise in New Zealand.
Part of the reason rugby continues to be able to produce top quality players can be put down to the legacy of those who have gone before.
Ardie Savea and Sam Cane grew up watching Richie McCaw, McCaw grew up watching Josh Kronfeld, and Kronfeld grew up watching Michael Jones and so on. Steven Adams, combined with Kiwi players like Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie at the Breakers are proving to be a quality group of role models for the next generation to aspire to be.
As the likes of Adams, the Breakers as well as any other Kiwis continue to shine on the global stage, more and more young players will continue to choose basketball ahead of rugby, football or cricket as an outlet for expression of their ability.
Because of this, New Zealanders can begin to flourish on the international stage the same way that other sporting codes do. Basketball may not be the top of any young athletes sporting agenda at the moment, but in time we could see more and more Kiwi players take the world by storm the same way that Steven Adams is doing at the moment.